Are we changing how and where we want to live?

sun city

By Bob Lowry

The Phoenix metropolitan area is where the first retirement community was built. On January 1, 1960 Del Webb opened Sun City and that model for the 55+ community has continued to this day. Just over a year ago I was invited to spend a few days at the company’s newest version, Sun City Festival, and write about my experiences. If you missed the original post, click here.

Since that time some articles and research reports have crossed my desk that have piqued my interest. Certainly, the Sun City model and all its various counterparts around the country continue to attract a steady stream of buyers. At the same time, there appears to be an important shift in how and where some retirees want to live and build a satisfying retirement.

When Sun City opened is was quite a trek to downtown Phoenix. The more recently opened Sun City Festival community is even farther removed, though suburban shopping and services are within a dozen miles. But, what appears to be happening is a growing interest in living closer to a city. 

This is not necessarily to be closer to a higher concentration of restaurants, entertainment venues, and shopping, though that may be part of the appeal. Rather, a majority of retirement community residents now say they expect to be working, at least part time, after retirement, and don’t want a long drive. Isn’t it interesting that retirement can now include working and a commute, two of the major reasons someone retires in the first place! 

There are retirees who do want to ditch the green lawns and sameness of a typical suburban neighborhood for the excitement of an urban environment. Many cities are seeing condos designed for a wide mix of ages pop up in the urban core. In the case of Phoenix, the availability of light rail, having 12,000 ASU students downtown, and a burgeoning entertainment district have resulted in over 2,000 additional housing units recently opening up in the city core. Many are targeted at empty nesters and the recently retired professionals. 

Another trend that is taking hold is a shift away from the appeal of golf or tennis as the primary recreational activities in these communities. No one is predicting the end of these sports in these locations, but reports indicate personal fitness and being able to enjoy nature without a club and bag or racket are growing in appeal. Fitness centers with both equipment and classes as well as extensive hiking and biking trails are essential in the “new” retirement communities. 

In a recent study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave reported by CBS News, two-thirds of the retirees questioned say they prefer to live in a community that is diverse in the ages who reside there. The age-restricted community may be on its way to the dustheap, as the thought of living with only those of retirement age is rapidly losing attraction. This finding doesn’t surprise me. Comments on this blog have pointed to this trend for quite some time.

There was one particular finding in the research that does surprise me a bit: downsizing is not as popular as I thought it might be as we age. In fact, if family and relatives are nearby or visit often, a new retirement home may be larger to accommodate extra get-togethers. As a good example, Chuck from Tennessee, a regular reader and commenter, moved into a bigger retirement home. But, I’d guess that the majority of comments on this blog on this subject like the idea of simplifying and downsizing as a welcome step in retirement. 
Of course, I guess I shouldn’t register surprise: I ended up moving to a bigger home when we decided to move close to the grandkids. Betty and I thought we wanted a smaller home, with less yard to maintain and a simpler lifestyle. That wasn’t what happened, and thank goodness. With almost weekly family dinners of 7-13 people, game nights, football parties, and croquet in the backyard, a small house and a smaller yard would not have allowed us to enjoy all this quality time together.

Back to the research study, the desire to “age in place” for as long as possible remains a powerful motivator. The majority of us attach more emotional value to our house that its actual monetary value. The equity we may have is not worth more than the memories and feeling of home.

I should also note other living options that have been explored in other posts: living full or part time in an RV, being a snowbird and living for part of the year in a different climate, co-housing and sharing space with others, opting for an apartment or condo in the heart of a city as an alternative to a life in suburbia, or even living part time on a cruise ship!
Obviously, what is liberating is this freedom to spend all or part of our retirement in a setting that best suits us at this point on our satisfying journey. Whether it is a traditional retirement community, a house on wheels, a bigger home, a smaller home, the same home….we make the choice.
By Bob Lowry

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