Deciding where to spend your retirement can be both exhilarating and nerve-racking, depending on which aspects you’re focusing on. Most people dwell on lifestyle considerations such as proximity to golf courses and access to symphonies. Less fun are the more practical matters—cost of living, tax rates…and the long-term risks inherent to certain locations.
The fact that a place is prone to wildfires or hurricanes doesn’t mean you should scratch it off your list entirely. It just means that you should factor that risk in as you make your decision.
Following is a list of today’s popular retirement destinations and some of the primary risks to consider. No place is perfect—or perfectly safe. But it’s a smart exercise to ask yourself how you would handle certain contingencies… and not just how you’d handle them today, but 10, 20 or 30 years from now when you may be in much less robust health.
The Villages, Florida: Heat, storms and sinkholes. According to the new US Census data, this retirement Shangri- La now qualifies as America’s fastest-growing metro area. It’s easy to see why—The Villages is its own little world, offering every imaginable activity. But the heat and humidity can be extreme. From May to October, expect temperatures in the 90s, with heat indices often reaching “extreme danger” levels over 100. If you like the outdoors, you’ll either need to curb your lifestyle for half the year or take serious health risks as you age—and climate change will only make matters worse.
Despite its inland setting, The Villages is not immune to storms. It usually is spared the worst of Florida’s hurricanes, but it’s not uncommon for The Villages to see high winds and heavy rains.
The Villages, together with the surrounding area of Central Florida, is prone to sinkholes. Over the past two decades, The Villages has experienced dozens of sinkholes that have caused significant damage and even evacuations.
San Antonio, Texas: Fragile infrastructure. This historic city has become increasingly popular with retirees in recent years. Its housing prices are reasonable… there’s lots to do…and it retains a small-town feel. But like much of the state, it was hit hard by last year’s power crisis caused by devastating winter storms, which revealed dangerous shortcomings in the systems and structures meant to keep Texans safe and comfortable. The outages that left people—many of them elderly—literally freezing to death in their homes or using trash cans to collect water from the San Antonio River were the direct result of poor statewide energy policy choices.
Fort Myers, Florida: Flooding, rising sea levels and hurricanes. Not long ago, US News & World Report named this southwest coastal city the number-one best place to retire. It boasts numerous parks, galleries and museums, not to mention great beaches. But at just seven to 10 feet above sea level—and with climate-change predictions coming true before our eyes—the chances of serious flooding are increasing. One model predicts that by 2050, there’s a 53% chance that the Fort Myers area will see four-foot flooding likely during a hurricane.
Sun City, Arizona: Drought and wildfires. Sun City is a suburb of Phoenix, the fifth-largest (and fastest-growing) major city in the US. The “Valley of the Sun” has been called the “least sustainable city on earth”—not surprising given that it sits in the Sonoran Desert. The Southwest is entering its third decade of the worst drought in 400 years. Phoenix’s population boom is anticipated to continue indefinitely, but its water supply is finite and shrinking.
Dry conditions contributed to the wildfires that have plagued Arizona in recent years. While the Phoenix metro area proper has not yet been hit, the fires have come too close for comfort. Even if your home is not in the path of a fire, breathing smoky air for months on end—as is becoming the norm through much of the American West—can have serious health consequences.
Oklahoma City: Tornadoes and earthquakes. The low cost of living makes OKC one of the country’s most affordable cities for retirement. Add to that an average annual temperature of 61°F and sunshine 65% of the days, and the appeal is apparent.
You probably already associate Oklahoma with “tornado alley.” And maybe that’s okay with you, since the chances of your specific dwelling being struck are relatively low. But did you know that Oklahoma has nearly as many earthquakes as California? In fact, earthquakes have become a daily occurrence in the state. Geologists say it’s a manmade problem caused by injecting wastewater, a by-product of fossil fuel extraction, deep underground, triggering seismic activity. Most of the tremors are small, but it doesn’t take much to make an elderly person fall in the shower—and chances are, given a long enough timeline, those tremors won’t all be mild.
Kennebunk, Maine: Lack of senior services. Be sure any area you are considering in this state has a good senior center… transportation vans for people with mobility challenges…Meals on Wheels…and home healthcare providers. Right now, Maine and areas like Kennebunk have a severe shortage of home-care providers. The state has the oldest average population, with many young people having migrated elsewhere for better jobs. Most people don’t think about this stuff as they approach re t i rement or even in the earlier stages of retirement. But by the time it becomes important, it may be too difficult to relocate to somewhere with better services.
“That cabin up in the mountains:” Lack of medical access. After decades of grinding away at the rat race, fighting our way through commuter traffic and just having too many humans around, many of us fantasize about finally being able to escape to a remote mountain or lake for some blissful solitude. But isolation can entail risk.
During your earlier retirement years, you’ll probably have little need for medical services beyond routine doctor visits. But later, the availability of good doctors, quality hospitals and decent, affordable assistedliving facilities and nursing homes will become crucial. By then, it will be more difficult to relocate to another area to find good health-care options. It makes sense to investigate the services that are available in any area you’re considering, and think twice about long-term plans that involve a place with an hour-long drive to the hospital.
Your hometown: Economic decline. Surprisingly, most people—53%— don’t move when they retire. If you’ve been fortunate enough to find a place you love…if your house is paid off…if you’re surrounded by friends and family… why leave?
But you should apply the same kind of risk assessment to your current location that you would if you were looking into other destinations. Maybe you’re fine with the various risks you’ve been living with. But beware of another risk—a faltering local economy. Is your city on the upswing? Does its future look good? Will home values continue to rise? Will crime rates stay down?
There are several signs you can look for. If the local economy is strong and most employers are in industries with a promising future, such as technology and medical research, that bodes well for a city’s outlook. Many people forget that a thriving job market should be an important criterion for retirees—well-employed neighbors make for stability and tax revenues. On the other hand, a heavy concentration of aging manufacturing plants is less promising. And as an area declines, crime is likely to go up. State capitals and university towns are more likely to remain stable over time.