It seems like every time you go online or open a magazine, there’s a new ranking of the ideal places to live or retire. Money magazine just came out today with its annual list of “America's Best Places to Live,” featuring what it deems the 50 best small towns in the nation at any stage of life. (No. 1: Sharon, Mass.)
Then there's Forbes, AARP and Topretirements.com, which compile their favorite retirement locales in the country. International Living picks its top spots for retiring abroad. And the Milken Institute selects the “best cities for successful aging.”
Other lists let you pinpoint retirement sites more narrowly. Looking for the lowest taxes? Try Sioux Falls, S.D., or Stafford, Texas. Want to live a long life? Think Story County, Iowa, or Carver County, Minn. Prefer to retire on the water? Consider Lewes, Del.
Rankings Change a Lot in a Year
Oddly, some of the raters’ annual lists vary dramatically from year to year. Money’s 25 Best Places to Retire for 2012 had only six locations in common with its 2011 ranking. Did its ideal retirement locales really change so much so quickly?
(MORE: What ‘The End of the Suburbs’ Means to Boomers)
After quickly reading through recent lists, I’ve counted more than 200 “best places to retire,” and there's at least one in every state.
There are a few powerful reasons why you see all these lists. Readers love them, and the rankings help sell magazines and attract online readers.
But can they really tell you where you should retire? I’m dubious.
What’s Wrong With ‘Best Places’ Lists
The problem with these lists is that they’re typically based on broad geographic statistics, such as home prices, cost of living, state and local taxes, the availability of medical care, public transportation, and weather and crime rates. While the data might measure factors that are important to consider when choosing a place to retire, other criteria that can’t be quantified may well be more important to you.
(MORE: The Best Cities for Boomers to Pre-Retire)
The best way to decide where you should retire is to find the place that best meets your needs and circumstances, however you define them.
To do that, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you want to be near friends and family?
- Will you be taking care of aging parents? If yes, will you need to be close by?
- Do you have hobbies or interests that play into where you’d want to live?
- Will you work during retirement? If so, will the location matter to you? (If you’ll transition to a part-time schedule for your current job, you may need to retire near or exactly where you live now.)
(MORE: The Suburbs Are No Place to Grow Old)
In addition, says Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain, senior research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL), “the most important factors for you might include the physical structure of your home, the layout of your immediate neighborhood and the services offered by your surrounding community — all factors that can’t be captured by general statistics.”
Cities Must Prepare for Aging Boomers
To address these considerations, Dyer-Chamberlain and other SCL staff recently partnered with Henry Cisneros, a former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, on Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America. That book assesses the state of housing in America and addresses the interrelated issues of communities, services and financial concerns.
One of the premises of Independent for Life is that although most Americans say they’d prefer to age in place, many cities and towns are unprepared to meet the needs of millions of aging boomers. According to Jane Hickie, senior research scholar at SCL and one of the co-editors of the book: “Well over 90 percent of older Americans say that they will stay put in their traditional homes, and indeed they stay put. Only about three to four percent actually move, and they don’t move very far. Aging in place isn’t a goal – it’s a fact.”
Yet, according to The United States of Aging, a recent survey by the National Council on Aging and USAToday, only 49 percent of Americans 60 and older believe their community is doing enough to prepare for the growing senior population. Many respondents gave their areas only a “fair” or “poor” rating for job opportunities, public transportation and affordable housing.
Communities will need to plan for an older population that is less dependent on cars and more reliant on health care and long-term care. Most of these seniors have constrained financial resources, prompting the need for less expensive, smaller homes and increased opportunities for social interaction.
Imagine You in the Future
When thinking about where you’d want to retire, put yourself in your own shoes 20 years from now and try going a week or two without using a car to see how you’d fare. The results could be eye-opening. You may well find that your town might not be suitable when you're less mobile years from now.
To assess how well your community would meet your retirement needs, take a look at Livable Community Indicators for Aging in Place from the Stanford Center on Longevity, the University of Michigan and the MetLife Mature Market Institute. It has a checklist of key factors to consider, including:
- Accessible, affordable housing
- Safe, walkable neighborhoods
- Transportation options
- Safe driving conditions
- Emergency preparedness
- Support services addressing aging residents’ needs for health care, shopping, healthy food and sociability.
If your hometown doesn’t rate well on those criteria, you may want to look for one that does.
‘Best Life,’ Not ‘Best Place’
Choosing a place to retire is about much more than simply finding an area with inexpensive living costs, low taxes, delightful weather and fun things to do. It’s about living the best life you can for the rest of your life.
So don’t be swayed by the media hype and "best places" rankings with limited usefulness.
Yes, reading those lists can jump-start your research and help you compare potential retirement locations. But no matter whether you’ll age in place or relocate, you'll want to find the best place to call home by determining what truly matters to you.