As many of us peer into the future, one of the fun questions we may be asking ourselves is where we might live in retirement. Choosing where to live in retirement is an important decision for a lot of reasons. We may want to move to that vacation spot we love, or move to be closer to family, or move to enjoy a more affordable lifestyle. As we choose where to live in retirement, we get the fun of tossing around all sorts of possibilities.
Lots of considerations go into choosing where to live in retirement – access to healthcare, availability of affordable housing, accessibility of low-cost transportation, and so on. But after reading this recent article from NextAvenue, we’re adding an additional big item to our checklist: the effects of climate change. Freelance writer Deborah Lynn Blumberg has done some research and she paints a stark picture that might cause you to think twice about that Sun Belt retirement destination, or that house on a low-lying sandy beach.
The title of Blumberg’s article says it all: “My Retirement Heaven Is Turning into Hell.” Let’s see what she means.
Where to Live in Retirement: Record-Shattering Heat
Blumberg begins her article with the story of Rose Pierro and her husband, who bought their retirement home in Oro Valley, north of Tucson, Arizona, three years ago. Since then, the state has only gotten hotter and drier.
“A record-shattering heat wave hit Arizona this year, marking the hottest summer on record,” Blumberg writes. “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.”
The more than a million Americans who retire each year—many of whom having moved to popular destinations like Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona—are now facing the reality of “searing heat waves, raging wildfires and unprecedented rainfall”, and according to Blumberg, many are now questioning their choices.
That includes Rose Pierro, who says, “Climate change is definitely something that you think about.” She’s wondering if they can continue enjoying Arizona living.
Climate Change is Affecting Where People Live in Retirement
The data, as usual, tells the story in stark terms.
“A recent poll described in USA Today shows one in five people are so concerned about global warming they believe it will make it more challenging to live in their area,” Blumberg writes. “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.”
This phenomenon is especially pronounced among older Americans, for whom the secondary effects of climate change—like dust from drought and smoke from wildfires—can more significantly cause or exacerbate health problems.
Where to Live in Retirement: Seniors Especially Vulnerable
It’s not just the risk of aggravated health issues, either. Older adults often have limited mobility, which makes 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 according to the EPA,” Blumberg writes.
And the risk of extreme weather is getting higher, according to most experts. Kimberley Miner, a climate scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, predicts that areas like Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California are likely to become hotter and drier with only pulses of rain. And these areas are currently home to about 5.3 million people over the age of 65.
“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.”
Where to Live in Retirement: More Heat, Less Water
Along with heat comes 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,” Blumberg writes.
Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center (WRRC), warns that the prognosis is not ideal for such an important water source, which supplies drinking water to some 40 million people in the U.S.
“Some people are calling it a megadrought,” she says. “The system is stressed.”
Climate Change Not Just in the Sun Belt
Miner notes, importantly, that while the issue of climate change may be more obvious in the popular retirement states, it’s happening all over the world.
“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?”
Blumberg urges that retirees, especially, should be as aware as possible of the impact of climate change on the places they would like to live. “For example,” she writes, “as described by the Wall Street Journal, 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, according to a Forbes report.”
Every area has its notable natural disasters. Melane Barney, a real estate agent in Orange County, California, notes, “Almost every state now has something you have to be concerned about weather-wise. Here we have earthquakes and fires, but it’s something that people just live with.”
Where to Live in Retirement: Is There Enough Water?
While the Colorado River Basin drought hasn’t significantly impacted any cities yet—thanks in part to good long-term planning on the part of utilities—Megdal encourages everyone to know where their water comes from, and who supplies it. “Is it a sustainable water source?” she says.
She also recommends looking into your water supplier’s drought plans, especially if you’re considering moving to an area dependent on the Colorado basin. “Ask yourself,” she says, “am I comfortable with what they’re doing in the area to manage the water?”
Along with these considerations, Blumberg explains that it’s important to think through the wider ramifications of living in such an area. For example, retirees who love to garden probably won’t be able to replicate the water-hungry plants they may enjoy when they move to Arizona; consider, instead, planting a native garden with cacti, succulents, and other less needy plants.
Where to Live in Retirement: Houses Are Still Selling
“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,” Blumberg writes.
In Orange County, where Barney is a real estate agent, home inventory remains low and the housing market is still tough for buyers. “It’s just a pretty unique place to live with both the beach and snow nearby,” she says.
Barney often works with retirees, some local, and many choose to downsize instead of leaving California altogether…even at the cost of thinking through what that decision could mean. “They don’t want to leave the grandkids,” she says. “People are just picking where they want to be, and then deciding that they will deal with the consequences.”
As an expert in the field, climate scientist Miner hopes that more folks will figure science into their housing plans. Her words conclude the article, saying, “I’m hoping that people start to consider climate change in some of their planning and their choices. I do think that it’s increasingly needed.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)