The New Way to Pick a Place to Retire

Retirement living is no longer about sunshine, golf, hospitals and low costs. It's about senior-friendly activities, jobs, transportation and technologies. A new report examines 78 criteria in 359 cities to rank the very best places to retire.

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Where is the best place to live when you retire? For decades folks have migrated to states like Florida and Arizona for the weather and low taxes. Many have moved abroad to countries like Ecuador and Panama for the low cost of living and cheap real estate.

But a lot has changed. New research suggests that an overwhelming number of Americans wish to age in place, and that as baby boomers retire en masse cities will make policy and infrastructure adjustments to accommodate them.

Nine in 10 retirees intend to stay put and eight in 10 say they’ll feel that way even when they require assisted living, AARP has found. This developing trend has not been lost on community colleges and universities, which in virtually all cities have begun fashioning senior-friendly classes and even housing for those who want to be close to campus. It hasn’t been lost on homebuilders either; they are exploring senior-friendly designs that include things like non-slip surfaces, grab bars in the bathroom, wider doorways, higher electrical outlets, entrances without steps, and lever handled doorknobs.

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But we have a long way to go, and the Milken Institute hopes to stir a national conversation with its first Best Cities for Successful Aging report, released this week. The report goes beyond the typical measures of what makes a city a good place to retire and which result in popular lists in Money, Forbes, U.S. News, AARP and more. The Milken study is a data-driven index that compares 359 U.S. metropolitan areas in 78 criteria that affect the quality of life for seniors, and ranks these areas from best to worst.

The criteria include not only health care, crime rates, and weather but also economic and job conditions, housing, transportation, and social engagement factors that help create a safe, affordable and connected community for seniors. The study also recognizes that many senior, especially younger ones (ages 65-79), want to continue to work for pay.

The Milken report is not the first to recognize the changing retirement landscape. In its latest best places report, Money writes of younger seniors:

 “This group doesn’t necessarily want the obvious locales, like Florida or Arizona. ‘Retirees today are looking at it with a sense of adventure as opposed to a sense of inevitability,’ says retirement consultant Maria Dwight. They may not weigh the pros and cons in terms of days of sunshine or number of golf courses, but rather the number of hiking and biking trails, the opportunity for educational enrichment, and the caliber of the art and restaurant scene. Since so many are still working or would like the option to, a strong job market is a plus too.”

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Still, the Milken report may be the deepest dive yet into which locales offer the most for seniors. For example, topping the list of major metropolitan areas is Provo, Utah, which among other things has the fewest fast-food outlets per capita and the fastest growth of small businesses to go along with things like great hospitals and the most volunteer opportunities.

Topping the 100 largest cities:

1)   Provo, Utah

2)   Madison, Wis.

3)   Omaha, Neb.

4)   Boston, Mass.

5)   New York City

6)   Des Moines, Iowa

7)   Salt Lake City

8)   Toldeo, Ohio

9)   Washington, D.C.

10)  Pittsburgh, Pa.

Topping the 259 smaller metro areas:

1)   Sioux Falls, S.D.

2)   Iowa City, Iowa

3)   Bismarck, N.D.

4)   Columbia, Mo.

5)   Rochester, Minn.

6)   Gainesville, Fla.

7)   Ann Arbor, Mich.

8)   Missoula, Mont.

9)   Durham, N.C.

10)  Rapid City, S.D.

Not surprisingly, many of these are college towns, which tend to offer a vibrant lifestyle with big city amenities in a small, low-cost and low-crime setting. College towns have been recognized as wonderful retirement cities for many years. From the Milken report:

“With 80 million boomers on their way to senior status, entrepreneurs and business leaders are seeking to capitalize on the emerging opportunities presented by the massive longevity economy. Innovation abounds—from new approaches to wellness and health-care delivery, to senior-friendly housing and transportation systems, to encore education, career, and engagement opportunities, to aging-centered technologies and social networks, to travel, entertainment, and leisure.”

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It’s all in the mix. Boomers will insist that policy makers and city fathers deliver, and their sheer numbers pretty much guarantee that something will get done.