fb-pixel Skip to main content

More than 10 years ago, Barbara Zierten and her husband retired to a small town in California’s scenic “gold country,” in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“It’s beautiful here,” said Zierten, 73, explaining the attraction of the area east of San Francisco. They also were on a tight budget and reasoned that a small town would be cheaper.

But as time has passed, they have decided the area isn’t an ideal fit. For one thing, the library is open only part time. “I’m a reader,” she said. “So it’s frustrating.” And a bad experience with a hospital has led her to seek treatment for health concerns in San Francisco, a two- to three-hour drive.


Perhaps most dispiriting to Zierten, a liberal who closely follows politics, is that the population’s views tend to be much more conservative than her own. Particularly irksome is one resident who often puts up large signs critical of Barack Obama: “The latest said, ‘President Ebola.’”

“I didn’t do my research,” she conceded. The couple is now contemplating relocating to Sacramento.

As Zierten learned, shopping for a retirement community should ideally involve more than a perusal of real estate circulars, a check of local tax rates, and a glance at the average temperature. When choosing a place to live for two decades or more, retirees also should consider whether a community reflects their values and if the place can truly meet their needs for health care, as well as social and cultural activities, as they grow older.

Much research, including a recent report from AARP, suggests that most people over age 50 would prefer to stay put as they age. But sometimes, particularly for those who have spent their working lives in expensive urban areas, the need to live on a fixed income pushes retirees to seek locales that are more affordable. Others simply relish a change of pace.


Thinking through what they want, and then taking time to research communities that seem to be a good fit, can help retirees avoid disappointment and potentially costly financial mistakes, Jane Bryant Quinn, a personal finance journalist, advises. “If you’re going to move, start years in advance,” she said.

Catherine Frank, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, urges retirees to visit a prospective community and live there as they would expect to on a daily basis. Pay attention to how you will shop, how you will get around, how you will occupy your time, and be specific with your requirements. “Do you have heart problems, so you need good cardiac care?” Frank presses. “Can you live a healthy lifestyle there by going walking or biking?”

One obvious approach is to subscribe to the local newspaper or peruse it online. Catherine Moore, 65, who is retiring in Temple, N.H., early next year after a career at an outdoor equipment retailer, went further than that. Before choosing the place, she read the minutes from its Town Meeting, a uniquely New England form of government, to find out what sort of issues the population was facing and how it handled them — “a capsule view of what people value and how they compromise or agree to disagree,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Town Meeting notes can often be found online, she said, and can give insight into whether the community is likely to offer friends and neighbors who help one another. “I don’t have to agree with my neighbor’s political views to know that he will be over with his chain saw to clear my drive after an ice storm,” she said.


The Milken Institute, a nonprofit research firm that studies aging, among other subjects, ranks communities based on attributes that it determined were desirable for older Americans. The “Best Cities for Successful Aging” initiative is meant to spur communities to adapt to aging populations.

The list, updated Tuesday, includes many cities and towns — like Madison, Wis., and Iowa City — that aren’t necessarily thought of as traditional retirement destinations. Its top locations offer strong economies with employment options, since many people of retirement age want to work at least part time; opportunities for learning and cultural engagement; access to quality health care; and good transportation.

The report developed an index using 78 criteria, based on publicly available data, to rank more than 350 communities. It does include data on the weather and golf courses but goes further. For instance, a town’s “wellness” rank factors in the number of fast-food restaurants per capita and rates of diabetes, as well as the percentage of hospitals offering geriatric services. Its “community engagement” rank reflects the number of libraries and YMCAs, as well as the level of senior volunteerism.

College towns appear often on the Milken list, which comes as no surprise to Marilyn and Richard Frey, who settled in Oxford, Miss. It’s not on the list but is home to the University of Mississippi.


The Freys, in their 70s, spent much of their lives as teachers, then had second careers working as managers for the La Quinta hotel chain. While working in El Paso, Texas, they bought land for a home in the New Mexico mountains, but then worried the location might be too remote. “We began to rethink the whole thing,” Marilyn Frey said.

They settled on new criteria: affordability, airport proximity for international travel, and access to arts and entertainment options. Richard Frey retired first and took charge of the relocation effort. He attended a conference hosted by the State of Mississippi, and returned home with a stack of packets about various communities. “I put them in three piles: yes, no, and maybe,” he recalled. He then rented a car and drove across the state, visiting 10 promising locations. “I drove the neighborhoods,” he said. “I visited supermarkets.”

A spring trip to Mississippi with his wife led them to focus on Oxford: “I remember the daffodils,” she said. They moved there in early 2002. They like that the downtown square has three bookstores that host talks by visiting authors. They attend theater productions and can take classes and attend sporting events at Ole Miss.

Deeper reconnaissance is now a priority for Zierten, the California retiree. She has subscribed to Sacramento Magazine, partly to learn about goings-on in the city, where she and her husband, John Dahlen, hope to move. And she plans to spend time at local breakfast haunts, “eavesdropping” on conversations.


“If everyone’s talking about death panels,” she said, referring to a term that conservatives use to argue against the Affordable Care Act, she will probably look elsewhere. She doesn’t mind opposing viewpoints, but “you want to find a comfort level.”