Ann Arbor: A retirement mecca

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Rayza Goldsmith, Senior News Editor
Published September 18, 2012

It’s difficult to think of Ann Arbor as anything but a college town.

Would you choose Ann Arbor as a place to retire?


While they don't declare their presence as forcefully, an older demographic constitutes a large chunk of the city. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Ann Arbor residents 65 and older comprised 9.3 percent of the total population, but those as young as 50 are choosing to settle here post-career.

Retirees who choose to settle in Ann Arbor are a different breed from the warm-weather-seeking, golf-playing folks we usually associate with senior populations. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Boca Raton or Honolulu, but those who choose to retire in Ann Arbor say they have priorities beyond just the weather.

Marlene Ross, 71, is an Ann Arbor retiree and a volunteer docent at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. She still lives in the large, modern house her husband built and has a strict no-shoes policy inside her home, making visitors’ shoes a hot commodity for her dog Mokzy.

Though she originally hails from New York City, Ross said Ann Arbor has more than enough culture to satisfy her.

“I would never leave Ann Arbor,” Ross said. “It’s a small town with big city opportunities.”

Ross pointed to the University Musical Society as one such opportunity. As a volunteer for UMMA, she has free access to many University exhibits and musical performances. Ross said she has seen the acts that perform at Carnegie Hall in New York perform on campus.

Ann Arbor’s thriving restaurant scene is also a big bonus for Ross.

She noted that on one trip to Manhattan, the man at the deli counter told one of her family members: “If your aunt is visiting from Ann Arbor, she has the best Jewish delicatessen in the country,” referring to Zingerman’s.

“What more can you ask for?” Ross said. “The culture, the political climate, convenience, unbelievable convenience of living in a small town and yet having all this.”

Health is wealth

It's worth noting that a large part of what makes Ann Arbor a retirement hotspot is the University.

In a recent study published by the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, Ann Arbor was ranked the seventh small metropolitan city for successful aging in the United States.

According to Conrad Kiechel, the Milken Institute's director of communications, college towns are particularly well-suited to thriving retirement communities.

“One of the reasons that university towns did very well,” Kiechel explained, “is because people know about how universities enrich the cultural offerings for people in their community.”

Another benefit the University provides is its world-class medical programs and facilities, which Kiechel said is the primary reason Ann Arbor scored so well in Milken’s study.

Bob Pickering, 69, an Ann Arbor retiree who lives in the University Commons, said he and his wife initially moved to Maui, Hawaii to retire, but two weeks after the move, opted to relocate to Ann Arbor for medical reasons.

“Family compelled us to come back and medical reasons compelled us to come back,” Pickering said. “And frankly, we like Ann Arbor.”

Pickering met his wife at the University, and housing on campus was the first place they called home.

Lifelong learning

For many retirees, Ann Arbor’s opportunities extend into the academic realm. A number of institutions exist for the sole purpose of creating a culture of intellectual stimulation for senior citizens.

One such institution is Ann Arbor’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, one of 117 lifelong learning organizations across the country located on college campuses that cater specifically to an older clientele.

OLLI sponsors up to 120 classes and lectures each year led by retired professors. Anyone over age 50 is invited to attend these outings and membership costs only $20 annually. Today, OLLI has around 1,280 members.

Founded by businessman and philanthropist Bernard Osher, OLLI is based on the idea that lifelong learning promotes mental and physical health among older adults by encouraging them to stay involved in activities and creating new friendships, according to Abby Lawrence-Jacobson, OLLI’s program coordinator.

University Commons, a 55-plus community, is another University-affiliated institution that caters to retirees seeking intellectual engagement.

Founded by retired University faculty, the Commons – a condominium community available only to those with a four-year college degree – hosts concerts, offers lectures by community members and has weekly meetings to discuss worldly issues, according to Commons resident Karen Gotting.

Gotting, 71, said if you’re looking for a warm place to settle down with tennis courts, golf courses and all the other typical Florida retirement stereotypes, the Commons isn’t your solution.

“It’s a place where people are very astute in terms of being politically aware of what’s going on,” she said.

A homogeneous city

But despite the cultural pride that that Ann Arbor's senior population exhibits, its racial composition is largely homogenous. Only 8.9 percent of Ann Arbor's 65-plus population is African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Part of this is attributable to a financial disparity between the racial groups.

According to a study conducted by Nari Rhee at the University of California, Berkeley, Blacks and Latinos are more commonly in the lowest income bracket for retirees, and poverty rates for retirees are twice as high among those groups. Ann Arbor is no exception.

Michael McGee, a financial planner based in downtown Detroit, makes a concerted effort to reach out to the African American community, which he said lacks crucial access to financial advice. It is for this reason, he said, that the black community is often less prepared than whites to retire.

“They maybe do not make the right moves throughout their 30 years of employment that someone else might make,” McGee said.

McGee also said the general lack of diversity in the city discourages many African Americans from moving to Ann Arbor in the first place.

McGee said he was one of only three African Americans at a conference of 125 financial planners held at the University.

Nevertheless, McGee is optimistic about the future of financial planning for African Americans, noting that he has seen significant changes over the past decade in the community’s knowledge of the subject.

He added that Ann Arbor might see a change in its retiree demographics as a result of this knowledge. This shift would hopefully further enhance the cultural opportunities afforded by Ann Arbor to its elderly residents, and keep Tree City a popular place for sexagenarians to settle down.