When Karen Fisher's mother passed away 11 years ago, her father, then 72, began to spend nearly all his time traveling or staying at a second home in Brownsville, Texas. "He wasn't the kind of guy you worried about being alone at Christmas," says Fisher, 49, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. But in January, her father fell seriously ill. Eighty-three and infirm, he has returned to Michigan, where Fisher, after cutting her work hours and income, helps care for him. Her husband, she says, "has been supportive. But you sort of ask, 'How many years can we do this?'"
The Fishers are not alone. Baby boomers' parents who took up travel or fled to the Sun Belt a decade or two ago are coming home. Nearly 18% of people over 60 who moved across state lines say they are returning to their hometown, according to the Census Bureau. Demographers Christopher Briem of the University of Pittsburgh and Peter A. Morrison of the Rand Corp. found that more than one-third of the elderly who moved to Pittsburgh from 1995 to 2000 had relocated from Florida.
There are a number of reasons for the reverse migration. Some retirees simply miss their favorite restaurants and familiar surroundings. But generally, most return because they've lost a spouse or are no longer mobile and need the support a family can provide. And while families welcome returning seniors, it's not always easy. Fisher, for example, already had her hands full with work, her own retirement planning and an autistic son. Retirees who leave and return also "put an increasing burden on their community's infrastructure," says Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
A study by Markwood's organization found that fewer than half of all communities in the U.S. have begun to plan for the social groups, caregivers and physical facilities they will require as the population ages. There is a good chance, says Markwood, that the inevitable ramp-up in "aging preparedness" will be too late to fully meet the need.
The countermigration of elderly retirees offers some important lessons for those just embarking on their youthful retirement years--roughly ages 60 through 72. Yes, we're living in a time of unprecedented longevity and health, and there is nothing wrong with planning to spend 10 to 20 years in the sun. But we all grow old, and then our values can change in a hurry. Some things to consider before picking up stakes and heading where it's warm:
Family ties. Even if you have plenty of money, eventually you are going to want the support of the people you know best. The longer you've been away, the more likely those connections are to have eroded. Don't wait until you're desperate. Leave time to rebuild relationships.
Rent, rent, rent. If you move away, consider renting out the house you're leaving and renting the one into which you move. That makes returning easy if, after a year or two, you realize you've made a mistake.
Future mobility. One of the main things young retirees overlook is what life will be like after they no longer drive. On average, women outlive their driving ability by 10 years, men by eight. The availability of mass transit and help from family come in handy.
Out of the woods. That two-story house you bought in a remote setting may look good to you at 70. But how will you feel about it when getting upstairs isn't so easy? "It's hard for us to admit that one day we won't be as healthy," says Elinor Ginzler, director of livable communities at AARP. But it happens; when it does, it's nice to know that your journey into independent retirement came with a return ticket.