With retirees fueling a new Western migration, city and state officials roll out the welcome wagons, and brace to meet different needs
PAHRUMP, Nev. When Steve Marsh first drove into this dusty town in the shadow of glitzy Las Vegas, he took one look at the gravel roads and sagebrush flats and grunted: This is in the middle of nowhere.
Pahrump may not look like much. But it boasts miles of clean, open space and is surrounded by desert mountains. The weather is mild, the housing cheap and national parks are nearby.
It was enough for Marsh and his wife, Donna, to move here to retire.
We love it, Marsh says, relaxing after a round of golf at his Desert Greens retirement community. We’re happy as pigs in slop.
Retirees eager to escape cold winters or congested freeways have been flocking to Western cities like Pahrump. The future will bring more of the same: The Census Bureau says the population of those 65 and older will increase more rapidly in the West than in any other area of the country.
While retirees settle in, states are figuring out how to keep up with an aging population. Will there be enough doctors and nurses? Hospitals and nursing homes? Will housing be affordable?
This affects all of us, says Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. It’s life, and it’s time that we step up, recognize it, identify the challenges and find solutions.
Nevada leads the country in the senior population boom. From 1990 to 2003, the state’s 65 and older population almost doubled, according to census numbers.
Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii, Utah, Colorado and Idaho were among the top 10 states for growth in the senior population.
And it’s not just the Sunbelt. Lured by the nostalgia of rural towns and outdoor recreation, retirees have turned Western towns into retirement hot spots. Florida and California have long been Meccas. But today, Bend, Ore., St. George, Utah, Sheridan, Wyo., and Silver City, N.M., are hip places to be.
Laura Ridley and her husband, a retired real estate developer, traded Georgia for Cody, Wyo., four years ago. She speaks about the West in postcard-perfect words.
We can be in the park (Yellowstone) in an hour, she says. The animals, oh my goodness, to see them just like it’s supposed to be. The climate is just fantastic. When it snows, it’s like confectioner’s sugar.
Retirees who migrate are the healthiest, wealthiest and best-educated of all retirees, says Mark Fagan, a sociologist at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. They take college classes and travel. Few pass time in rocking chairs on the front porch.
Before, when you thought of a retirement home, you’d think of bingo and all that, says Wynne Angell, a retirement housing consultant. Now you don’t even want to advertise that. Bingo that just creates the impression of people that are real frail.
Many people are retiring younger, with more money and more plans. Newly retiring baby boomers don’t see themselves as old, says Joanne Bowlby of ARPP Wyoming.
Here we see them active: mountain biking, hiking, skiing. The independent mindset fits them.
Hunting and fish are among the draws to Townsend, Mont., a town of about 1,900 near the state capital of Helena.
Weather, water and mountains are main draws to Sequim, Wash., a town of about 4,200 on the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula. The town’s average age is 58, says Pat McCauley, Sequim marketing director.
I actively market to kayakers and bikers and outdoor adventure people, and they move here with their kayaks and bikes when they retire.
But as retirees age and join the baby boomers already in the West, their housing and medical needs will change. They may need help with everyday activities or move into an assisted living home.
Through 2025, the Census Bureau projects the West will continue to dominate the country in the growth of the senior population. Utah will lead, followed by Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado. The senior population in those states is expected to at least double.
States are taking stock of their resources for older residents, examining health care and housing options, forming committees to study needs of an aging population and trying to plan for an unprecedented population increase.
Kempthorne feels so strongly about preparing for older residents he made long-term care his initiative as chairman of the National Governors Association this past year. His father cares for his mother, a stroke victim, in the couple’s home.
That’s a trend states are looking at. While not abandoning institutional care, states are increasing aid and resources for home care, hoping to move away from nursing homes and use relatives or friends as caregivers. Home care is usually cheaper and it’s what people prefer, says Donna Folkemer, health program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, states are looking at the availability of health care and the shortage of doctors and nurses.
There’s a tug and pull here, says Dr. Joanne Schwartzberg, director of aging and community health for the American Medical Association. You have the age wave coming, and we just don’t have the work force.
Telemedicine doctors practicing from afar by voice, data and video hookup may see greater use in remote communities in the West.
We’ve got that kind of information going on cross-continent, says Pam McBride, grants coordinator for the hospitals in Orofino and Cottonwood in north central Idaho.
CAT scans are sent from Clearwater Valley Hospital in Orofino to radiologists in Australia to be read, says McBride, adding that older people make up 16 percent of the population in in Clearwater County. The national average is 12.5 percent.
Kempthorne says a new hospital in Salmon will use telemedicine extensively.
When retirees began discovering Sheridan, Wyo., population 16,000, Mayor Jim Wilson asked them to help make Sheridan, with its main street parades and small-town charm, more attractive to an older population.
The new residents now serve on volunteer boards and have helped the town develop hiking and bicycle trails.
Sheridan is expanding its hospital, making sure its older buildings are handicapped accessible and working to keep housing affordable in a town where new residents have driven up home prices.
That’s a big problem in retirement spots. New, wealthier residents can afford to pay more for homes, but that raises property taxes for longtime residents.
The West accounted for 19 of the top 25 counties in the country for the most expensive homes owned by people ages 55 to 74, according to estimates from the National Association of Home Builders based on census numbers.
Pitkin County, Colo., home to Aspen, led the country with an average home price of $946,036.
But preparing for an older population is more than just making sure health care is adequate and housing is affordable.
States also will need more transportation options. Using school buses to transport seniors while students are in school is one idea, Kempthorne says.
It’s also about quality of life and making sure jobs are available for the many retirees who plan to continue working.
States will need to attract companies that want to hire older workers and businesses will have to accommodate job-sharing and employees who want to work from home, says Clare Hushbeck, an economist with AARP.
It does require big vision, she says. It’s not an easy thing to wrap your mind around, but it’s coming.
The Idaho governor hopes his yearlong work on long-term care paid off and his fellow governors will include the issue in their state-of-the-state addresses next year.
You don’t have to look very far down the road with regard to your budgets, Kempthorne says. You’re going to be impacted one way or another. You better get ahead of the curve.