Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Six months in The Land of Seniors baked brutal retirement truths into this visiting daughter

I could buy a first-class ticket for my mother if I had a dollar for every tale I’ve heard about those who thought life in the eternal sun would be a heavenly thing indeed, only to find it a hot, well-lit, lonely space.

A few months ago I told MinnPost readers about my mother’s stroke, which required me to get to Arizona and its justifiably infamous summer swelter faster right away so I could oversee her recovery.

Mary Stanik

Six months on, I’m moving my mostly recuperated, reasonably cooperative mum and myself back to the Land of Frozen Sky Blue Waters and the cold everyone in Arizona speaks of with a dread better reserved for the possibility of Justin Bieber becoming president than for something like weather. I didn’t think I’d escape the desert so quickly, but I got lucky and sold my mother’s house fast. And for every dollar of my asking price.

While packing and telling people I’ll take tater tot hotdish and a fairly strong economy over 117 degree temperatures and bark scorpion stings, I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve learned in The Land of Seniors. Including quite a few seniors who want retirements as close to Heaven as possible, only without dying and without shelling out much cash.

Until my mother moved four years ago to her gated community (well, it’s gated when the gate works), I was like a lot of people who thought those who retire to places like Arizona or Florida are mostly happy, healthy campers, shaking margaritas poolside in Captain Steubing Love Boat dress whites while taunting their children about snow shoveling. I’ve seen some of that, mostly when I’ve been up in Phoenix in areas heavily populated by fairly wealthy, relatively younger (less than age 72 or so) retirees.

Ads don’t show the realities

But within my mother’s community and others nearby, I’ve seen unhappier styles of retirement. Not all are like Hell, but lots aren’t what AARP touts in its isn’t-getting-old-a-heavenly-thing-indeed advertisements.

When I said some people move to Arizona for cheap retirements, I wasn’t suffering from heatstroke. Fairly well appointed houses in my mother’s community ranging between four and 10 years old and between 1,300 and 1,850 square feet have sold within the past four years for less than $130,000 to about $180,000. Even so, La Vida Arizona is unaffordable for a lot of people. If I had a dollar for every story I’ve heard about how many house sales in this snowbird-heavy area are foreclosures, I could probably fly home first class clutching a bottle of Pol Roger champagne.

Some of the stories are brutal. People forced into early retirements during the Great Recession who still thought they could manage two homes if they bought a cheap enough winter residence. Not willing to give up their primary homes, the Arizona places go into foreclosure.

Or people who thought themselves far healthier, wealthier and independent than they were, only to fall very sick, very broke and very alone in a place 50 miles from major medical care and a longer distance from children who cannot or will not visit more often. Much less move any closer. I was pointedly told by one person that “not all of us have a self-employed, spinster daughter with slutty sunglasses to care for us.” Talk about cruelty to Gucci sunglasses.

Loneliness among Dems, singles …

I could buy a first-class ticket for my mother if I had a dollar for every tale I’ve heard about those who thought life in the eternal sun would be a heavenly thing indeed, only to find it a hot, well-lit, lonely space. For instance, if one happens to be a Democrat in much of Retirement Arizona, it’s advisable to restrict talk to vital issues such as In-N-Out’s cheeseburgers. To be sure, Democrats exist. The eight of us sit at a distant table’s end at clubhouse social events and whisper while saying things such as “Obamacare” or “Jack Kennedy.”

And as most of the people in these communities appear to be couples in their 60s or early 70s who are still (and occasionally, happily) married to their first spouse, people like my 82-year-old twice widowed mother who put an Obama 2012 sign on her rock garden are often pretty miserable. Mum, a very social person who volunteered at the town’s senior center and homeless kitchen, was trying to sell her house before she had her stroke because she felt so out of place.

I asked her more than once why she moved here. Well, she was sick of Wisconsin’s cold. It was cheap. She wanted a more interesting life. And I wondered how I became such a wanderer.

Well-furnished — and exhausting — exile

After six months in this well-furnished yet exhausting exile, I’ve certainly had some brutal retirement truths baked into me. Resulting advice: Save your money like a fiend. Pray you don’t get laid off or are forced out of your job before you feel ready. Take care of yourself and hope to hell you don’t get sick. Make sure you have good supplemental Medicare coverage. Reconsider your views toward cold and snow.

And maybe hope you have a spinster daughter who can drop everything to care for you if you do fall ill.

Slutty sunglasses optional.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.) 

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by carly torino on 01/08/2015 - 09:03 am.

    Arizona works for many people. I just read several guest posts on the site Retirement And Good Living by a snowbird who lives in Arizona in the winters and returns north in the summers. There are also many other guest posts by expats who moved further south.

  2. Submitted by Sara Strzok on 01/08/2015 - 11:33 am.

    Truths about retirement

    This could have been my story 10 years ago – except the diagnosis was dementia, my dad was living with his girlfriend (another truth of retirement – elders have a lot of reasons for NOT getting married), and the return to Minnesota was not cheerful and cooperative.

    A few more truths:

    Many of these communities have cohorts of residents who all bought in at about the same time … and are all becoming less able to care for themselves at the same time. The well-appointed clubhouse and golf courses in my dad’s community were going mostly unused – everyone had “aged out” of them and not enough young blood had moved in.

    The reaction of the community management company when I arrived and let them know I was there? “You’re not expecting us to do anything about this, are you? We’re NOT assisted living.” When assured that I wasn’t expecting them to manage my dad’s care, they replied “You’d be surprised how many of these people’s kids don’t know that.”

    No one commented on my sunglasses. But quite a few people said how glad they were for my dad that someone in his life had the time and means to care for him, and how worried they were that they didn’t.

  3. Submitted by Matt Becker on 01/08/2015 - 03:20 pm.

    From the desk of…

    “I know people who got a little cabin fever in winter and went and did a desperate thing and moved to Phoenix and they’ve been reaping the whirlwind ever since. A little irritation about snow shoveling drove them to live in a vast air-conditioned wasteland where the grass is brown and feels like Brillo and the weather is hellish for six months a year and you need a hot pad to open your car door. A week in the Caribbean could’ve saved them the trouble and heartbreak.” – Garrison Keillor

  4. Submitted by Wm. Sweeney on 01/08/2015 - 10:33 pm.

    AZ is OK

    Living in AZ for 15 yrs taught me several things:
    – one can adapt to any climate
    – human behavior in Phoenix during late Sept mimics the behavior of MN humans in early-April — neighbors suddenly appear from hibernations
    – economic growth creates immense opportunities for youth
    – the weather can get boring

    The best advice anyone can receive for retirement is to retire where you have lived your life — among friends, families, etc. A trip to the Sunshine in Jan or Feb is all most of us Minnesotans need to be reassured that snow, cold and windchill have not engulfed the entire planet.

  5. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 01/09/2015 - 09:18 am.

    Good article

    There is much to think about here, not the least of which is being lucky enough to have a daughter who can help manage the caregiving. It does seem to be the daughters who step up to help the most – from visiting to filling those weekly pill containers to advocacy. As for life in the South, it depends on and when you do it. Year-around in TX, FL, or AZ is going to cost you more in air conditioning bills than you would spend on heat up here. On the other hand if you spend a month or three down there in the dead of winter, then come back home to resume your life among family and friends in a more civil society, you will be better off.

Leave a Reply