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by Joan L. Cannon

Retirement has become a word with evolving meanings. The traditional instant response to it is a vague mental picture of a fisherman with a bobber at the end of his line sitting on a shady bank beside a stream, or a grinning couple leaning on the railing of an ocean liner and enjoying a spectacular sunset, or an athletic and impossibly youthful couple playing golf or riding bicycles.

The reality is becoming so much more complicated. If it were only the financial ability to stop working, that would be enough, but nowadays, life expectancies have added several new dimensions.

Think of the fact that there is an ever-growing number of older people likely to go on getting older and older and older! Will their money last as long as they do? Whether or not it does, how much of a burden will these elders be placing on their children?

And what will those burdens be? As we age, it's perfectly normal to show it both physically and mentally. We're aware that to what degree varies enormously. But the best scenarios still leave those of us who are parents concerned about what our children may have to take on to care for us.

My mother was in her forties when her father (a widower for thirty years) passed away. I was sixty-four when my mother died. What will be the ages of our children when there's only one of us left? Health care, college, trying to prepare for their own retirement will be all they can manage without having to worry about us.

As an only child, I was thoroughly distressed at the prospect of putting our children through what my husband and I had had to endure for the sake of my sadly demented mother. We wanted to make at least an effort to avoid it, if we could. Based on my husband's pension, our social security, and a modest inheritance (that had covered the astonishing costs of my mother's last two years, depleting it alarmingly), we decided to try to find a life-care home for our last days.

We also decided that if we could, it would be make sense to make the move while a) we were the ones deciding our fate; and b) to make it early enough to have a few years to take advantage of freedom from homeowners' responsibilities.

It's no surprise to anyone that circumstances frequently upset plans. In our case, distance has become our problem, and except to add it as factor not to be overlooked, that's all to be said here.

In our visits to places we selected to investigate, we found many similarities and more differences. Our initial source of information was an excellent reference guide that is no longer available, but which provided facts in areas that particularly interested us such as: proportion of women to men (many places are almost entirely populated by females); availability of cottages; attitude towards pets; cultural and other amenities within a reasonable distance, and much more.

More than a decade later, the Internet has become an obvious and in some ways more revealing route to finding what one might like. The information on types of contracts is too often minimal, but at least lets the reader knew whether or not the facility is for profit.

Some states have superior regulatory laws, some have few. Where we live in North Carolina, the Department of Insurance oversees the long-term care communities, thanks in large part to the work of an attorney who retired here and saw the need for oversight. If residents have legitimate conflicts with management, it's a good thing to have a place to turn. There is a National Continuing Care Residents Association (NaCCRA).

Any choice of a home is a big one; trying to find the perfect place to spend the rest of your life can be frightening. Maybe "gut instinct" will be as good a guide as research and ratiocination. However, if you want to do some research without traveling to the possible neighborhoods that might suit you, one fairly exhaustive guide might be Retirement Places Rated by David Savageau. The author has an impressive resume with several Rand McNally publications that makes the "Completely Revised and Updated" 7th Edition (published by Frommer's) now available probably as authoritative as any single reference can be.

It's possible to also consult Savageau's website: There you will find an amazing array of statistics on cost of living, climate, services, and many other variables, so you can compare possible venues. Unless you're interested in out-of-the-way places not known for retirement appeal, this might be the first step when contemplating the your retirement. The index in the book is basically by the name of the town being rated, and if rank is useful, it's also applied to each of the categories studied, from number of good restaurants to shopping to hospitals.

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