A few years ago, Carol and George Snyder sold their longtime home in Lincoln, Neb., and decided to retire 270 miles away, to some acreage outside the town of Long Pine, Neb., population 320. By some measures, they didn’t go about it the right way.
They couldn’t be happier.
The Snyders don’t think of themselves as being on the leading edge of any trends, but they are. They’re part of a movement that a recent federal study suggests will see significant numbers of retirees moving from cities and suburbs to the countryside and tiny rural towns.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts that baby boomers are heading for green acres, where in the next decade they’ll swell the rural and small-town retirement-age populations by two-thirds, from 8.6 million to 14.2 million.
To be sure, statistically speaking, the typical boomer expects to stay right where he or she is and "age in place." But John Cromartie and Peter Nelson, who authored the USDA report, "Baby Boom Migration and Its Impact on Rural America," say significant numbers are headed for the hills, many of them motivated by a desire to be near places where they’ve vacationed or near longtime second homes. Many of them are going in order to be near family or friends.
In any case, significant numbers will be moving, and the principal magnets for them are scenic amenities (such as water access, warm winters and comfortable summers), recreation and/or cultural opportunities, and manageable housing costs, according to the study.
But there are other considerations, according to Bill Roiter, a Massachusetts psychologist who specializes in retirement issues.
"When most people start to think about retiring, the first thing they ask is, ‘Do we have enough money?’ " he said. "Then they say, ‘We want to travel.’ And then, for at least half of them, it’s ‘We want to move someplace.’ "
After the novelty of moving "out there" wears off, retirees might find themselves missing some things they now take for granted: easy access to daily needs, to doctors and to airports. Or even to other people. Maybe they’ll rue losing access to another job.
Roiter, 59, knows whereof he speaks. Recently he and his wife bid adieu to decades in Boston and moved to their longtime vacation home on Cape Cod, Mass., outside the small town of Chatham, Mass.
"The pace here is unbelievably better," he said in a telephone interview. "Chatham has a village center — a main street with stores on both sides. It runs half a mile, and that’s it.
"We sit between two ponds," he said of his current home. "I look out my office window and see trees and swans and ducks."
But Roiter is still working part time, and says that ducks aside, that’s a factor that would-be ruralites ought to consider, especially with baby boomers’ penchant for working as consultants after "retiring." …CONTINUED
Transportation is important, he said, not only for consultants and other part-time workers, but for anyone who wants to be out and about for any number of reasons.
"Retirees say they want to be rural, but they shouldn’t be buried in the woods," Roiter said. "They should think about where the local grocery store is. How far away is a religious community that they want to be part of? Where’s the airport?"
He said access to cultural offerings tends to show up on retirees’ retirement checklists.
"There’s a lot of talk about cultural features, but there’s less activity (in the long run) than they plan," Roiter said. "They just want to have the choice."
Most retirees want to socialize in their new communities, but they need to poke deeply first to decide whether there are enough opportunities for clubs, volunteerism, etc., he said.
An increasingly important thing over time: Even the most able-bodied retiree needs to ask hard questions about the availability of medical care — especially from specialists, he said.
"We have great ambulance service near Chatham," Roiter said. "The fire department is great, so we have that for emergencies. But my (regular) medical care is basically out of Boston," about 90 miles away.
If those criteria are absolute, the Snyders readily admit they flunked parts of the exam when they moved to Long Pine. Health care and transportation options are not tops.
"There are hospitals in both directions, no more than 10 miles away," Carol says. But those facilities probably wouldn’t be their top choices, she admits.
"There are limited physicians, so that could be a major concern if we had health problems," she said. George says he drives an hour to reach a Veterans Administration hospital.
Trips to many other places can represent a major trek, too.
"If we want to fly, we have to drive four-and-a-half hours for a two-hour flight" to visit our daughter Erica, who lives in Dallas, she said.
"The nearest McDonald’s is more than 60 miles from Long Pine," says the daughter. She was none too happy — her mother used the word "furious" — when her parents announced their intention to move to several acres in the countryside near where they had owned a vacation home when she was young. …CONTINUED
"The four-county area celebrates ‘Middle of Nowhere Days’ each summer," she said. "Not kidding!"
But that’s exactly what the couple was seeking. "We were expecting culture shock, but we were hoping for a good culture shock," Carol said.
They say they got it.
"You can hear coyotes and you can see stars and you’re not fighting with city lights," said Carol, 62. "On our acreage, there are ponderosa pines and a cedar ridge. There are two creeks. It’s ‘canyony.’ "
Yes, winters are sometimes brutally snowy, they said. But on the ridge where their three nearby neighbors live, "we have four-wheelers and tractors with blades and we help each other get out," explained George, 64. "When we have a snowstorm, it’s kind of like a party, a community thing. We have hot chocolate."
Eventually their daughter, who rues the 13-hour car ride to see them, became a reluctant convert, she says.
"The move simplified everything for my parents," she said. "Where they bought their groceries: only four stores in a 40-mile radius. Where they worked out: only one gym. It even affected how they communicated with each other. The simple life that Long Pine offers has improved my parents’ relationship tenfold."
The Snyders decided that in retirement they’d find a way to visit their daughter, even if the distance was great. But for many retirees, moving to be closer to their children and grandchildren is a priority.
Be careful what you wish for, Roiter says. Being near the offspring is yet another adjustment that might hold surprises, he says.
"I had a client who had kids in Chicago and in Pittsburgh," he said. She couldn’t decide which one to be close to, and she also wanted a rural locale. "I suggested she rent a place to live for a month near each, to find out what she liked and didn’t like."
In any case, don’t make a geographic change immediately after leaving the workforce, he said.
"What I recommend is to wait six months before you make that decision. Go on a trip, but don’t pack up and move."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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