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The Retirement Boomerang

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More people over the age of 75 are leaving the sunny south than are moving to that zone-a stunning reversal of the migration of retirees

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As if saving for your kids' college education and your own retirement isn't enough, now there's the very real threat that Mom and Pop will be returning from Florida sooner than you may have expected looking for your emotional and, quite possibly, your financial support.

Demographers have picked up on a subtle but growing trend: more people over the age of 75 are leaving the sunny south than are moving to that zone-a stunning reversal of the migration of retirees to places like Arizona, Nevada and Florida that took wing a few decades ago. The upshot: adults in their 40s and 50s who had all but dismissed, or at least temporarily forgotten, any notion of having to care for parents who were last seen frolicking in the sun are somewhat suddenly faced with this new liability-just as they're hitting crunch time in many aspects of their own life.

Nearly 18% of people over 60 who move across state lines say they are returning to their hometown, according to the Census Bureau. Demographers Christopher Briem of the University of Pittsburgh and Peter A. Morrison of the Rand Corp. found in a 2004 study that more than a third of the elderly who moved to Pittsburgh from 1995-2000 had relocated from Florida, and almost surely were coming home.

Why the reverse migration? In some cases retirees simply decide that they miss their favorite restaurants and familiar surroundings, or that year-round sunshine is boring. But most return because they've lost a spouse and are lonely, or are no longer mobile and need the support of their family, or have lived longer than expected and run out of money.
The extent of retirees who flea south tends to get exaggerated. Nine in 10 never leave their hometown, according to the AARP. So this counter migration is a relatively small wave. Still, it presents problems not just for their grown children but also for community planners who never saw it coming. Less than half of all communities in the U.S. have even begun to plan for the care-givers and physical facilities that will be needed as the population ages, according to a study by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

The counter migration of elderly retirees under way today offers some important lessons. Yes, we're living in a time of unprecedented longevity and good health. But Mom and Pop, or one or the other, eventually will need you. They may be fiercely independent right now. But that can change in hurry. Some things for you to consider if your parents are just now picking up stakes to head south:

  • They will return. Eventually your parents will want your physical and emotional (hopefully not financial) support. The longer they've been away the more likely it is you will have filled up your life with other concerns. Some of that may have to go. Stay in touch with them so you have an idea of how they are doing financially and physically. This will give you a better idea of what to expect when they return.

  • Try to get them to rent at first. Not just the house they move into but the one they're leaving. That makes returning quickly easy if, after a year or two, they realize they've made a mistake. If they sell their house in a high-priced market and move someplace inexpensive they may not be able to afford to move back. You know what that means: your guest room just filled up.

  • Extend their time in the sun. If they head south and like it, where they live will be the key to staying longer. One of the main things young retirees overlook is what life is like after they no longer drive. Women outlive their driving years by 10 years; men by eight, according to the AARP. If there is no mass transit, they may come home sooner than they'd like. Meanwhile, if they move into a secluded two-story house, that won't work so well when getting upstairs isn't so easy and they're making frequent visits to the doctor. Of course, you'll welcome Mom and Pop back at home when the time comes. But as long as they like where they are, there's no need to rush it.
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