When Martha Powers and Larry Gomberg heard the news about Hurricane Florence bringing horrific winds and catastrophic flooding to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2018, they grimaced.
Then, they felt relieved.
“What if we had decided to build our retirement home there,” they said to each other in September, when the storm was making headlines. “What if our brand-new home had flooded?”
Like many of the 10,000 baby boomers hitting retirement age each day, Powers and Gomberg have decided to relocate. After coming close to putting a deposit on a house in Wilmington in the summer, they found a 55-and-over community just an hour from where they live in Fairfax, Virginia. They’re building a house in Lake Frederick, Virginia, near the Shenandoah Mountains, and will move there this month.
They examined a variety of factors, including access to quality medical care, affordability, culture and safety. That includes safety from hurricanes and deadly wildfires – like the ones that gutted the rural town of Paradise, California, a popular retirement area filled with senior communities.
Retirees who want to relocate should begin by reviewing their finances with an expert, and then start to build pro and con lists for each potential city or rural area, said Annette Fuller, editor of the magazine and website Where to Retire. “Get past the fantasies and evaluate real life,” she said.
During their two-year search, Powers, 63, and Gomberg, 67, kept separate lists. “At first, I thought I wanted to walk on a beach every day,” Powers said. “Larry thought he wanted to live in California. I was trying so hard to like California, I was making myself sick.
“Then, we visited Lake Frederick again and agreed we liked the people, the location, and decided we could still use our same doctors if we wanted to. Suddenly, walking on a beach didn’t seem as important as all those things.”
They visited potential new houses several times and spent the night, research that is invaluable, Fuller said. “Visit the area during every season to make sure the climate suits you,” she said.
And when figuring out affordability, be sure to determine the cost of flood insurance and other insurance you might need, depending on the location.
Asked whether retirees should rule out locations where sea levels are rising or wildfires are becoming more destructive, Fuller said: “It’s impossible to answer that with a blanket answer. Many areas of the country have some sort of risk, from hurricanes to flooding, to tornadoes, to sinkholes, to wildfires, to scorching heat, to high winds, etc.”
She added that finding an area that has “zero risk is very difficult.”
Problems with mobility often surface around ages 82 to 85, said Ginny Helms, president of LeadingAge Georgia, making safe surroundings very important.
That dangerous reality surfaced in November during the California Camp Fire blaze. Younger retirees who were still driving were more likely to flee to safety, while some older residents with no means of escape were left behind.
That was almost the case for 93-year-old Margaret Newsum, who was standing outside her home with her walker looking for help as the fire approached, CNN reported. She was whisked off to safety by Dane Ray Cummings, a garbage collector who had been told to cut short his route. Instead of doing that, he looked for people in trouble. He took her home to care for her rather than take her to a shelter. Since the fire, she’s been staying with one of Cummings’s close friends.
Older people are resilient, but Helms said seniors should anticipate changes that might accompany aging.
That’s a message Rita Parsons said she understands. Parsons didn’t want to have to worry about maintaining a home after her husband died two years ago. That’s when Parsons, 74, moved to Greenspring Village, a continuing-care facility with accommodations for independent living, assisted living and nursing-home care in Springfield, Virginia. Within such communities, residents can move from one level of care to another.
“They take care of everything for me here,” she said. “They come and change the filters in the heat pump twice a year. If a lightbulb burns out in the kitchen, I don’t have to deal with a ladder to change it. All I have to do is call building services. This makes life easy.”
Parsons doesn’t have children, and said she feels very secure about having her doctors on campus and optional nursing care, if she needs it. When she first moved in, she said, a bad knee made climbing stairs difficult. “But since I’ve lived here, I walk a couple miles a day, go to the gym and swim several times a week,” she said. “Now, my knee is fine, and I try to use the stairs as much as possible to stay in shape.”
At Greenspring, home to nearly 2,000, she walks to church services, goes to movies, and participates in square dancing, line dancing and classes.
“We say it’s a lot like living on a cruise ship, but you don’t have to deal with motion sickness,” she said.
Plus, it’s a tightknit community. “I had lived in a condo at one point in my life and never got to know my neighbors,” she said. “One of the best things about living here is everyone looks out for each other.
“I’ll be here the rest of my life.”
Powers and Gomberg expect to age in place, too. If they can no longer live independently at Lake Frederick, Gomberg said, they will have the financial resources to move to an assisted-living facility.
“We’ve visited several of them, and we know they’re not for us yet,” he said.
“Then when we toured Lake Frederick – we knew it was right. Many people there are just like us, professionals from the D.C. area, well educated and liberal. We knew we’d have lots to talk about with them. We also liked the layout of the homes. We have plenty of space, and I found my man cave.”
Lloyd is a writer at Kaiser Health News (KHN), a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.