It’s a knotty question for many couples in, or near, retirement: Where should we live?
I recently saw this play out in the virtual Right Place Workshop that “Right Place Right Time” author Ryan Frederick conducted for eight people in their 60s and 70s.
Most were married (though just one member of each couple participated), talking candidly about their difficulties figuring out whether to stay in their homes, relocate locally or make a more radical geographic move.
‘Somewhere’ or ‘anywhere’?
Each person also completed Frederick’s Right Place Assessment Form to see how well their home and community might fit them in the future and a Right Plan Canvas exercise to assess residential desires and constraints.
The Canvas would help them, and any partners, see if they were “Somewhere” people (preferring one location) or “Anywhere” people (open to alternatives). Frederick had the workshop attendees watch a video on design thinking, too, showing the usefulness of testing out ideas before making big decisions.
After the four-session discussions ended, Frederick — the Austin, Texas-based CEO of the housing and aging consultancy Here—created a Right Place Plan for each.
Deciding where to live
Based on what I heard from the participants and my follow-up interviews with two of them, they and their partners now have a clearer idea of how to make the right right-place decision for them.
“Putting these plans together spoke to me about how important this place thing is, but also how complex it is,” said Frederick.
Here’s how two of the workshop participants and their spouses have been wrangling their retirement-housing broncos, plus advice for other couples from Frederick and Caroline Brecker, co-founder of the life coaching firm, Third Half Advisors in Greenwich, Connecticut:
Joan Hendrix: ‘Austin outgrew us’
From 1995 until about 2010, Joan Hendrix, 61, and her husband Hammond, 65, loved living in Austin, especially during the “Keep Austin Weird” heyday. “We thought we’d live and die here,” said Hendrix.
But over time, the small city got much bigger.
Its population grew from 250,000 to over 960,000 today and traffic got worse, which made work less enjoyable for the pharmaceutical rep and her husband, a tech project manager.
“It was a decades-long grieving process for our city,” said Hendrix. But until recently, the couple wasn’t ready to relocate. They had local jobs and Hendrix was the primary caretaker for her father, who lived nearby.
After her dad died last year and the couple retired in March, however, they began thinking about selling their modest ranch house and, along with their Corgi, getting out of town.
“It was the first time we had ever been able to contemplate an actual move,” said Hendrix. Now, she added, “I feel a real sense of urgency to do it.”
But where to move to?
The couple is still trying to find an answer.
They’re toying with staying in the Austin area, though further from the bustling parts.
But, as Hendrix explained in the workshop, she and Hammond are also trying “immersion therapy” — spending a few weeks to a month in each of two North Carolina communities where they could envision living in retirement: Asheville and Chapel Hill.
Test-driving new hometowns
The couple liked Asheville during their August visit, except for two problems: They felt the area wasn’t especially impressive for healthcare. “It only has one hospital,” Hendrix said. And, like Austin, it’s also grown like kudzu. “I’ve never seen a city change as much in five years as Asheville has,” said Hendrix. “Hammond said: ‘It’s the gold rush there.’”
While they’re not ruling Asheville out, if they move there, they’ll look for a home in the roomier outskirts.
They’re eager to check out Chapel Hill in December, because it’s less expensive than Asheville and Hendrix has family there. “Ryan said something during the workshop that really stood out: ‘Sometimes when it comes to caretaking, there’s nothing like family,’” she said.
Her advice for couples struggling with where to live in retirement: Slow down the process, so you don’t feel pressured to make a hasty decision and talk to friends and family members in the same boat. “Empower yourself with facts and knowledge,” she said.
Fortunately, Hendrix noted, she and her husband share similar priorities about where to live. Number one: a place that will make aging easier for them.
Peter Balsamo: Misunderstandings nearly derailed us
Some couples grapple with whether to relocate as much as where they might go. That impasse, as workshop participant Peter Balsamo, of Athens, Georgia, found, becomes even more problematic when misunderstandings arise.
Balsamo, 72, is a retired continuing-education administrator, his wife, Isabel, 56, is a middle-school Spanish teacher from Colombia and their daughter, Sophia, will start college next year. As empty-nesters-to-be, the couple feel ready to contemplate moving, but…
He thought she was seriously considering moving back to South America, where her family lives, without him.
“I think I really misjudged what she was talking about,” Balsamo said. “And she thought I wanted to make some other decisions [about where they’d live]. We came to the conclusion that we misunderstood each other. We just had to clear that up.”
Sophia’s upcoming relocation for college precipitated her parents talking more openly about their own options.
Isabel has been open to Peter’s idea of looking into local retirement communities and they’ve visited a few. “I don’t want to move out of Athens,” Balsamo said. “As of now, I think Isabel’s OK with Athens.”
There is no place like home
But the couple hasn’t found any places they liked or could afford. Isabel has made it clear she won’t move into an independent living community with assisted living because she thinks the residents would be too old and the food disappointing.
So, they concluded their right place for now is in their 2,100-square-foot house surrounded by their stable of friends in what Balsamo calls “a great neighborhood.” As Balsamo put it: “We’ll just suck it up and do the best we can for the time being.”
They’ll likely renovate the bathroom and possibly other rooms. “The house is not perfect to Isabel’s needs, but it’s a good house,” Balsamo said.
However, it is not their “forever” house, he added. In five years or so, they may check out independent living/assisted living developments, in case Peter will need help with daily activities when he reaches his late 70s or 80s.
“We’ve been really thinking through the whole process very carefully, looking at all the scenarios and what is important to us,” said Balsamo.
His advice for other couples: Like Hendrix, Balsamo urges couples not to rush into relocation decisions. He also thinks it’s very important to ask yourself whether you’d be OK giving up your social network, doctors and attorneys where you are.
“I have a real connection with people here,” Balsamo said. “I so much appreciate and really value these connections.”
What the experts recommend
Frederick, who will offer two virtual two-hour Right Place Workshops and a four-session course this fall (likely price: $50 for the workshop, $500 for the course), encourages couples to think “more courageously, imaginatively and flexibly” about where to live.
This, he said, can help them get “unstuck.”
Some spouses may want to spend some of the year apart from each other, as one of his beta workshop participants said she and her husband expect to do. “Maybe you can live there sometime and here sometime,” said Frederick.
Others may want to broaden their search far beyond their current community, visiting potential places for a week or a month to see what it’s like to really live there, not a tourist.
Brecker calls this “try before you buy.”
Near but new
She believes some couples may find the right place is in their vicinity, but different enough from their current home and neighborhood to offer a sense of change. “Mix it up,” Brecker advised.
That’s what she and her retired husband, John, did three years ago. They moved out of a busy part of Greenwich, Connecticut, and into a rural spot in what Brecker calls “backpack country.”
The switch was what they needed, said Brecker, who dubs swapping her previous home to the new smaller one: “fun sizing.”
“It has been so liberating,” she noted. “I can still connect with the friends I’ve had for decades, but it’s just a very different vibe. And John, who is a tree hugger and loves nature, is able to hike every day, if he wants.”
Brecker thinks couples need to ask themselves one key question about place: “What community is going to help you grow in the ways you want to grow?” The answer might be in your own backyard — or not.
Richard Eisenberg is the former senior web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former managing editor for the site. He is the author of “How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis” and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS Moneywatch.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.