Thursday, March 24, 2011

Retirement Dreams: Move or Stay?

Our retirement relocation dreams started about 12 years ago, during a lovely vacation in Maui.  We dreamed of retiring there for a lifelong vacation: taking an early morning ocean swim, eating tropical fruit for breakfast, enjoying the warmth of the trade winds year around and being endlessly mellow.

Even before we returned to our stressful lives in L.A., however, we started worrying: would we be able to afford a house or condo in this island of our dreams? Would our beloved cats Timmy and Gus make it through the extended quarantine period then required of all incoming animals? Would we feel too isolated, too far from family and long-time friends? Would we be perpetual strangers, always haoles, in this new place? Or would it be as warm and welcoming to us as it felt during our vacation? We went home hopeful and still dreaming, but aware that we had many questions and uncertainties that only time could answer.

Many pre-retirees seem to share our dreams and concerns these days.  A recent AARP survey found that two out of every 10 Baby Boomers anticipates making a move when it's time to retire.  Another study, this one by Del Webb, the builder of active adult communities for those over 55, found that 42% of those over 50 plan to move in retirement. Many of these were looking for a kinder climate or lower cost of living. Some wanted to be closer to children or grandchildren. While many imagined staying in the same city or state, the majority of those polled in the Del Webb survey who planned to move, were anticipating a move to another state.

Deciding whether to move and where to move can spark your imagination, but can also be stressful - especially if your spouse doesn't quite share your dream.

A recent Wall Street Journal article featured couples who disagreed about retirement living plans and some of these imagined living separately and visiting back and forth.  Among some friends of ours, some compromises are in the works.  Our former next door neighbors in L.A. both love the idea of living in an oceanside condo, but the wife doesn't want to leave California.  So they've decided to stay right where they are -- 40 miles inland, but a fairly managable drive to the beach, in a home they love and can afford.  Some other friends have decided to sell their overpriced L.A. homes and purchase two smaller retirement condos --one near family and friends and the other in a resort area. Another couple -- long-time surburbanites -- have decided to move to a city -- but are still arguing about just which city that might be.

Since our Hawaii dreams began to fade a bit in the harsher light of everyday reality, Bob and I discussed many alternatives. We thought about staying put. We liked our house and our community in general. But, as a childless older couple, we felt increasingly out of place in this very family-oriented community and Los Angeles traffic was driving us crazy.  Bob loved the desert and made frequent trips to Death Valley in the summer, in search of extreme heat. I did not accompany him on these expeditions. I've always disliked the desert and am not a fan of major heat.  One early spring, I did go with him to Death Valley and found that the desert had a dramatic beauty of its own. But driving around stark and sun-baked residential areas on the periphery, I couldn't envision myself ever living there.

Then we stopped talking about exactly where we wanted to live and started asking ourselves HOW we wanted to live, what we wanted to do in retirement.  When we compared notes in this way, we found that we shared many dreams.

Our wish list included a mortgage-free home and plenty of time to pursue our interests -- his in music and art, mine in writing.  We wanted to keep learning all our lives, so access to a college or university was key. We wanted to be as fit as possible, so access to a gym or pools was high on the list. We wanted clean air and wide open spaces. I dreamed of living in a neighborhood much like the one in which I grew up -- where neighbors knew each other, were like extended family and where no attention was given to socioeconomic differences. Would such a neighborhood even be possible in these times?

We spent the next ten years exploring areas of California, then Arizona and thinking about Texas, Kansas (where my cousins live), Florida (where a number of college friends have retired) and even New York City, a place we both love. Then we started considering climate. Bob, who suffers from arthritis, ruled out four season environments. We both agreed that New York was too pricey for our retirement budget. We gave much thought to what it might mean to move to a new place -- far away from friends and family -- and, essentially start over.

As California's fiscal woes increased and traffic worsened, an out of state move started looking more attractive.  We were not seeing much of some beloved friends because, with the time and stress it took to get to Orange County or the outer reaches of Ventura County, they might as well be in another state. My brother was splitting his time between the East Coast and Bangkok, where he maintains a home. His L.A. home sat mostly vacant. My sister lives in Seattle. We have no children or grandchildren. Why not move?

Some of our friends were coming to the same conclusion. One couple with deep roots in the L.A. area, decided that they wanted to move away from their children and grandchildren in order to have more private, relaxing time with each other -- anticipating some fun reunions with family, but not the day-to-day stress of constantly babysitting grandchildren.

Two years before our anticipated retirement, our focus narrowed to Arizona. It was close enough to L.A. to return for visits and to have friends visit us. Not all areas were parched desert. There were many resort-type communities, including new ones for Baby Boomers. We visited a number of these until one stood out. It was in rural Arizona amidst wide open spaces -- some of these lush, Sonoran desert with forests of Saguaros, some of these green agricultural fields.  It wasn't a geriatric ghetto but a planned community with an all-ages side and an over-55 side with lots of shared activities. There were fabulous gyms, green parks, lakes and streams. There were lap pools and resort pools. There was an Arizona State University extension on site. There was a terrific shopping center and a hospital under construction -- all on the premises.  A charming, eccentric small farming town, founded in the 1860's,  and some eight miles away from our development, lent its name to our community's mailing addresses. Everyone we met was friendly. Something clicked.

A year before our planned retirement, at the urging of my sister who said "Arizona?? Are you out of your mind? Why don't you go stay at this place for a month in July and see how you like it before deciding to move there!" we rented a home at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch for three weeks. We bought our home the third day we were there.  July heat isn't an issue when you spend most of your time in air-conditioned comfort or up to your neck in the resort pool. It isn't an issue when you can wear shorts and sandals every day and everywhere. We were hooked.

We have now been retired for almost a year. We made the trip over here from L.A. near the end of April accompanied by our dear old cat Gus (his brother Timmy having died in 2007) and his new feline companions. All of us -- feline and human -- love the new mortgage-free house. We're not on a lifelong vacation, but living our lives, complete with ups and downs and daily responsibilities. But we are mellow. Bob is making music, drawing, reading and taking classes. I'm writing again, taking classes, and rediscovering my joy in singing along as Bob plays his guitar. We both work out at the gym and swim daily. We love exploring the countryside, driving through green fields on our way to the library, having lunch at country cafes where waitresses call you "Hon" and greet you with a hug. If we want to see professional theatre, ballet or opera, both Phoenix and Tucson are just an hour away, not that different from when we lived an hour out of L.A.

But there is so much to enjoy right here. We love the warm, velvet desert evenings and the vivid sunsets. We have come to appreciate the unique beauty of the Southwest. Best of all, our neighbors are like extended family, sharing joys and challenges, united both by what we have in common and what we don't.  Our dear friends here are a wonderfully diverse group -- and our dearest friends in L.A. are still very special to us as well. My brother and his family visited us recently -- and loved this place. He understood, at last, why we moved here. For us, this feels like the best of both worlds.

So our revised retirement dream feels a bit like our Maui dream: we're mellow, eat fresh fruit and swim every day. The ocean is distant, that's true. But the warmth of our new community more than compensates. The answer to the question "How do we want to live?" made our choice about where to live in retirement simple and clear.  We haven't looked back.


  1. Wow! How smart you are. We have stayed in the family home, but are quite a distance from our children -- three are in London, one in Italy and another in Korea! And my family is in the States. We have a house in rural France and spend the summers there. So far that works very well, but this is dependent on my husband being up to the upkeep of two houses and the driving and 'we ain't gettin' any younger'!

  2. kathy, you've obviously made the choice that is right for you both, well-considered, well-researched, but still leaving room for the heart as well as the head.

    We came back to our home on retirement, having rented it out while I was in paid parish ministry, and that was the right decision for us. We had toyed briefly with the idea of mioving to France full-time, but decided we would miss the UK too much, hence now our summers in France, spring and autumn visits to scotland and the rest of the year happily in Wales.

  3. Thanks so much for your comments! I think having two homes is a wonderful idea if you can manage it physically as well as financially. Many people in this community spend winters here and summers in their other homes in Canada or the northern Midwest or the East Coast. We could only maintain one home in retirement so we really gave this a lot of thought -- and so far, so good.

  4. Kathy,you are always inspiring, teaching through example of a life well-lived.

  5. You researched and looked at many options before you made your move. We, on the other hand, were much more rushed and spontaneous. We left LA looking for water, literally driving up the coast of California and into Oregon, looking at something we could afford. We ended up in Southern Oregon and fell in love with our waterfront living and all it entails. Everyone has choices, and what we choose at this point in our lives may not have been available earlier. Our children are scattered; but, they and we take time to reconnect often.

  6. It sounds so wonderful! Perfect choice! I love seeing the pictures on your blog!

  7. I found you when you commented on Rosaria's blog. I just read you post, and once again, I find myself wishing my husband and I could move to Arizona for all the same reasons you just listed.

    We visited there a few years ago. While there, we spent time with former next door neighbors who had moved to Sun City West. Before long, my friend and I were chasing all over looking for a house. Unfortunately, my husband still is not persuaded that he wants to move anywhere away from Colorado.

    It is harder to make these moves when one has children and grandchildren.

  8. Yes, it is so much harder when you're thinking of moving away from children and grandchildren. Since we had no family in L.A. at the time of our move, it was easier for us. However, several neighbors have their grandchildren come here and spend spring break and some time in the summer and they have a great time together. This community is especially good for that as there is a children's playground/park, a water park and special swimming pools for children and toddlers. We looked at Sun City West and spent a lot of time just across the street in Sun City Grand. But we wanted a new home and so decided on one of the two new Sun City developments. There are several people in our neighborhood who have homes in Colorado and here. They tend to get small homes for here to wait out winter in comfort. Good luck with your efforts to convince your husband! It's not an easy choice to pull up roots and move at this stage, but we've been very happy with our experience.

  9. It is another piece of your great work. Your site is very interesting and I read your posts each time something new appears. Thanks for your work.

  10. hi kathy, I am 60 my wife 58 3 kids 4 grand children we are finally moving from cheshire uk to the Highlands of Scotland.
    I have been wanting to move for 20 years and have this driving desire to do it although it's very scary when pen hits the paper.
    Some days I think it will be great others I think I need treatment for doing this crazy thing. Leaving a really nice house and uprooting myself away from family etc. I must be mad but keep coming back to the planned move. So I have to do it even though it could be an expensive mistake.Why do I jump back and forth so much? I am like two people in one body.
    The stress has been enormous but it keeps nagging away for me to do it then when I say yes it will be fine the next minute I am in a sweat over it. My wife is very patient and will follow me anywhere I am very lucky there. Is this a common situation?
    Should I be so changeable if it;s the right decision and have so many concerns, then euphoria at the thought of moving joe

  11. Hello Everyone, I am glad I found this site. My husband and I visited our son in Vail AZ and have for the last 3 years. Always in the back of our minds wanting Arizona to be our retirement place. Just 3 weeks ago we finally went and looked into some 55+ retirement communities. We found our little dream Manufactured home. We flew back home to South Dakota and our house is for sale right now. The housing market in South Dakota is a sellers market right now. Our house will sell very fast. I am only 49 my husband is 55 we have an agreement already in place for the manufactured home. (NOW THE STUFF THAT IS EATING AT US). Excited to move yes. But then, we have back and forth feelings all of a sudden, We have 3 other grown married children with our grandbabies living in South Dakota. We have 6 grandbabies and 1 on the way in 3 weeks in which all are living in South Dakota. All of a sudden things are happening very fast, my husband keeps asking me are you sure you wont miss the kids and grandkids? Are you sure this is what we should do? Ugh. Now I am torn. Excited to do the move. We both will still be working not fully retired in Tucson Arizona. I think it will be a good move for us since my husband does suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis. And he does feel much better when we are in Arizona. We want to escape the harsh winters and not have to worry about law care, snow removal and being cold (haha) We found a wonderfual retirement park has all the best to offer. My question is, how do you cope with leaving your kids and grandkids behind? I am with Joe Joe, the stress is enormous. Any suggestions or stories as far as taking this big leap?