The best place to retire is measured by love and relationships

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday May 25, 2014

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Albert Einstein may have been the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicist and, yes, he won a Nobel Prize. But I can’t help remembering that he also served for a time as the assistant examiner in the patent office at Bern, Switzerland, where, according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, young Albert was once passed over for promotion.

Whatever led to his getting passed over probably also accounts for his uncommon common sense, despite his genius. That capacity to combine brains with common sense is, to my way of thinking, what made him a truly extraordinary man.

One of Einstein’s most powerful observations has nothing to do with e = MC2. I am referring, of course, to the assertion, often attributed to Einstein, that “Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted.”

I thought of this quote a week or so ago while reading a new report by Bankrate, a highly-regarded financial publishing firm. It was titled, “The best and worst retirement states.” Everyone’s familiar with these kinds of lists; they appear with frequency in the pages of NewsweekUSA TodayPeople Magazine and the like.

Like other list-makers, Bankrate ranked all 50 states according to selected quantitative indicators thought to be important to most later-life Americans. These included:

  • Economic security, measured by cost of living and state and local tax burden.
  • Health and well-being, measured by health care quality and prevailing weather – including sunshine and humidity.
  • Personal safety, measured by rates of violent crime and crimes against property.

The results were used to rank the states from No. 1 (the best retirement state, South Dakota) to No. 50 (the worst retirement state, New York).

All but one of the so-called “best states” (Virginia, No. 10) are located in the nation’s center. These include the “flyover states” of the Great Plains (the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa) and the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho).

One wag said of the report, “They’re confused. They didn’t list the best places to retire; they listed the best places to die by freezing to death.”

It’s noteworthy that popular retirement destinations – such as Arizona (No. 16) and Florida (No. 39) – didn’t make the top 10. According to the report, “Yes, they’re lovely places to visit, especially when it’s cold everywhere else. But retirees must consider more than sunshine before making a move.” Yes, indeed, as we shall see.

What about the worst states? The 10 worst states are all over the map. Two are in the East: Maryland (No. 42) and last-place New York.

About our region, the report says, “The primary knock on Maryland is the high cost of living, especially for retirees.” Indeed, according to the Tax Foundation, Maryland is the seventh-highest taxing state in the U.S., including property and sales taxes. In addition, Maryland posted a crime rate above the national average.

Most of the rest of the worst retirement states are in the South – Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, where the biggest drawback tends to be access to quality health care.

The remaining two are in the West, including Oklahoma, Alaska and Hawaii where, in the latter two, the very high cost of living repels retirees.

No matter how you scramble the numbers, these kinds of rankings of retirement-friendly states, cities and even smaller communities disregard the wide range of preferences among later-life Americans. Some like it hot. Some like it cold.

I will never forget a taxi ride from the airport to my hotel in Fargo, N.D., one cold January day. The driver had a heavy Brooklyn accent. I asked him, “Why would you leave Brooklyn to come to North Dakota?” He looked at me in the rear-view mirror like I was from another planet – and said, “Man, I live 20 minutes from pheasant hunting in the summer and 10 minutes from ice fishing in the winter. What’s there not to like about North Dakota.” Different strokes, as they say.

Most importantly, these rankings overlook the most important “measure” for most later-life Americans – and that is the overriding importance of relationships.

First, most people do not move in later-life. Most people age in place, and they age in place because that’s home, that where they are close to friends and family. That’s where they have supportive relationships – including people they love and who love them in return. Home is also where there are familiar places and habits of living that give advantages and benefits that are hard to measure.

Bottom line: People do not live by the price of bread alone – at any age. As we learned in the opening minutes of “Cheers,” the most popular sitcom of all time, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name / And they’re always glad you came / You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same / You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”

Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – you can’t count the things that really count.

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