My Retirement Heaven Is Turning into Hell
Concern about blistering heat waves, powerful storms, frequent floods and unstoppable wildfires are taking some shine off the Sun Belt
Since Rose Pierro and her husband bought a retirement home in Oro Valley north of Tucson, Arizona, three years ago, the state has only gotten hotter and drier. A record-shattering heat wave hit Arizona this year, marking the hottest summer on record.
Hotter temperatures have made it harder for active retirees in the Grand Canyon State to enjoy the outdoor activities like hiking and biking that drew them there. Some days, time outside is bearable only in the early morning or after dark.
More than a million Americans retire each year, and those who've moved to popular retirement destinations like Florida, Texas and California in addition to Arizona are facing searing heat waves, raging wildfires and unprecedented rainfall prompted by climate change. Some are questioning their choices.
Domestic Climate Refugees
"Climate change is definitely something that you think about," says Pierro.
A recent poll shows one in five people are so concerned about global warming they believe it will make it more challenging to live in their area. And data show relocations due to climate change are already happening. In the U.S., alone, wildfires, storms, floods and other disasters displaced 543,000 people in 2022, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
For older Americans, especially, the secondary effects of climate change, such as dust from droughts and smoke from wildfires, can make a significant contribution to health problems.
"Climate change is definitely something that you think about."
Many older adults also have limited mobility, making them more vulnerable to extreme weather. Aging, together with some medications, can alter the body's ability to handle heat, too, putting older adults more at risk for heat illness.
Most climate experts expect extreme weather events to worsen. In particular, Arizona, Nevada and Southern California — a region that is home to about 5.3 million people aged 65 and older — will become hotter and drier, with pulses of rain, says Kimberley Miner, a climate scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.
When might these changes happen?
"We're already seeing it right now," Miner says. "We're seeing these extreme events happening on shorter time scales than we're used to. It puts infrastructure and housing at risk, and you're definitely going to see an increase in these events."
More Heat, Less Water
In addition to heat waves, there's also the issue of water. The Colorado River Basin, which states including Arizona, California and Colorado depend on for their water supply, has experienced a now 23-year drought with no apparent major relief in sight. In 2021, the basin experienced one of its driest periods in recorded history.
"Some people are calling it a megadrought," says Sharon B. Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center (WRRC). "The system is stressed." It supplies drinking water to some 40 million people in the U.S. Long-term, a stressed system could lead to less quality drinking water.
"The only way really to mitigate it is for us to stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere."
Still, says Miner, the problem of growing natural disasters isn't isolated to retirement states — it's happening everywhere. "We're all going to feel the impacts of climate change," she says, "and the only way really to mitigate it is for us to stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere. It's not where, but when and how. The question is, which extreme events will you experience in your area?"
Retirees, especially, should pay close attention to the impact of climate change when deciding where to live. For example, the U.S government proposed overhauling its flood insurance program to drop coverage for frequently flooded properties. Retirees living in homes they can no longer insure may have to make the hard choice to leave or risk flooding without insurance. Even if people can obtain coverage, costs to insure homes in flood-prone areas have climbed.
How Long Will the Taps Work?
People should also know where their water is coming from and who supplies it, says Megdal. "Is it a sustainable water source?" she says. For now, the Colorado River Basin drought hasn't significantly impacted cities, she adds. Part of the reason is that many utilities are engaging in good long-term planning with climate change in mind.
"The last thing a utility wants to do is have to tell customers they have to cut back on water use," she adds.
If you're a retiree considering moving to an area dependent on the Colorado basin, look into your water supplier's drought plans, recommends Megdal. "Ask yourself, am I comfortable with what they're doing in the area to manage the water?"
Retirees also should consider how they might be required to adapt to the local environment if they move to a popular retirement state. Someone moving to Arizona, for example, should prepare to forgo replicating the beautiful garden full of water-hungry plants they had back East. Instead, they can plan a garden filled with native plants that need less water — cacti, succulents and the like.
Lawn: Gone. Fancy a Fairy Duster?
Pierro, who also has a home in Colorado, has done just that. She also has a rain barrel to collect runoff water, which helps limit how much she buys from the local water company. She is looking into getting solar power, too, and hopes more retirees will take measures to limit their carbon footprints.
"Climate change is happening every place on earth, and everybody is affected."
"Climate change is happening every place on earth, and everybody is affected," Pierro says. "We all have to be concerned."
Despite these growing concerns about clean water, rising temperatures and the potential for flooding in states retirees tend to prefer, realtors who work with seniors aren't yet seeing large-scale shifts in retirement plans.
"Almost every state now has something you have to be concerned about weather-wise," says Melane Barney, a real estate agent in Orange County, California. "Here we have earthquakes and fires, but it's something that people just live with."
Houses Are Still Selling
Home inventory in her area remains low, and the housing market is still a difficult one for buyers. "It's just a pretty unique place to live with both the beach and snow nearby," she says. Barney has worked with plenty of retirees who have family nearby, and instead of leaving California, they're choosing to downsize their home.
"They don't want to leave the grandkids," says Barney. "People are just picking where they want to be, and then deciding that they will deal with the consequences."
Ideally, people will listen to the science around climate change when making their housing decisions, Miner adds. "I'm hoping that people start to consider climate change in some of their planning and their choices," the NASA climate scientist says. "I do think that it's increasingly needed."