There is no single secret to good health. Successful aging is more of a process than a quick fix. But living in a place conducive to healthy aging can certainly make the retirement experience more enjoyable. U.S. News asked Mary Altpeter, a senior research scientist for the University of North Carolina Institute on Aging, what to look for in a great place to retire, how to live longer, and why she plans to retire close to home. Excerpts:
What should retirees look for in a healthy place to retire?
I think when people are looking for where they are going to settle down, healthcare is a key issue. Being in a town that has a good healthcare system is really important. Ideal is being in a city where there is a university medical center where they have state-of-the-art research going on and patient education programs. Having hospitals that are aware of caregiver social and mental health needs and offering programs for those individuals is important. And having hospitals with wellness centers that help to promote healthy lifestyles is important. As people age, they develop certain common kinds of geriatric syndromes: incontinence, some cognitive decline, some balance issues that can lead to falls, medication issues, metabolism changes. Having hospitals that have trained geriatricians who can pay attention to and take care of the health needs of older adults is important.
Also, look for livable communities that make it easy to age in place. Those kinds of communities have transportation systems that allow individuals to eventually give up the keys to their car and use public transportation, safe sidewalks that make it comfortable to navigate around the community, and homes that are on one floor with a building design that is conducive to an individual who has a physical disability. Also important is having venues, parks, walking trails, or a wellness community center where individuals can exercise safely.
Are there places older adults shouldn't live?
Who wants to live in an environment that is highly polluted? I have seen some research that pollutants can really affect people with heart disease. Also, stay away from areas with a high crime rate where older adults, by virtue of frailties and not being able to see and hear well, may become a target of robberies and physical assaults. I wouldn't go to a place that has no services for older adults or that doesn't plan programming to serve the needs of older adults. You don't want to go to an area where there is a lack of physicians who are accepting Medicare. Think down the road to what your needs will be at 75 and 85. Look for homecare services, assisted living, and long-term-care facilities.
Should seniors also look for cognitive stimulation and social interaction in a healthful place to retire?
We all have different needs for social support. Some people prefer the comforts of their own home and having a good book. There are other individuals who seek out social support in the community. You can look for active senior centers or other types of community programs for older adults who wish to volunteer their services, a library with books in large print, and programs where you can retool and learn new careers. Some individuals who have been executives may go back and get a teaching credential so that they can work in a school.
What specific behaviors can seniors engage in that could help them live longer?
One thing that the research shows is being physically active. I'm not talking about running marathons. I'm talking about maintaining regular moderate physical activity. Generally, for older adults, we recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical activity about five times a week. For people with arthritis, it is 30 minutes, three times a week. Maintaining physical activity at a moderate level has been shown to help with issues of weight management, diabetes, and building bone strength. We recommend that part of the physical activity include balance and strength training. The research is showing that physical activity can help improve mood and have an impact on cognitive health. Getting regular exercise helps with circulation and the brain getting oxygen. Also important are a proper diet, getting the right balance of fruits and vegetables, smoking cessation, and controlling [alcoholic] drink consumption, particularly if you are on multiple medications that could potentially interact.
Do you have a place you would like to retire to?
I am quite happy here in Chapel Hill [N.C.]. I'm probably five years away from retirement. For some individuals, climate becomes a major concern. They want to get out of a cold climate into a warmer one. Other people really seek out the comfort of being near family and friends. Some older adults are choosing to move back to the town where they had [working] lives because the need for social supports has turned out to trump the climate variations. Some people make drastic moves when they retire, while others stay in the environment that is familiar to them. When you move, you have to find a new dry cleaner and a good mechanic, and some of those creature comforts are pretty important.