Activities abound at retirement homes

Retirement doesn't mean the end of anything, not life as you know it, fun, friends, activities, nor good health. Retirement is a new beginning, free from the constraints of the working world, which blesses those people lucky enough to have made it to senior status. In fact, 6,000 Americans a day turn 65.

But then what? While many retirees plan to stay in their own homes and continue their familiar lives, others choose to travel frequently. Some purchase summer or winter homes, and a growing number find the idea of moving and beginning anew appealing.

Where to retire is a big decision.

According to "50 Fabulous Places to Retire in America" by Ken Stern (Career Press), there's a lot you need to consider before packing up for Palm Springs. Your nest egg and spendable income definitely factor into this life-changing decision. Cost of living and taxes, crime and safety, climate, access to health care and airports, plus recreation and special services are all factors to keep in mind when choosing a new hometown.

Luckily, Stern has done much of the legwork, giving readers plenty of practical tips in a readable manner. Besides alphabetically chronicling the 50 top spots to retire, he also adds chapters on "Making Your Money Work So You Don't Have To," "How to Get Ready for Retirement" and moving tips.

According to Stern, more states than you may imagine house favorable moving choices: Indiana has Bloomington; Missouri has Branson; and Washington has Bellingham and Olympia. Florida, of course, is represented quite well, as is California, Texas and Arizona. But North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas and many others make the list, full of more cultural activities, recreational options and sound health care than many may guess.

Some of the big winners are San Diego; Fort Collins, Colo.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Palm Springs; and Tucson, Ariz.

Stern's book also lists actual retirement communities in his chosen cities.

Many seniors find the idea of these retirement communities appealing. In fact, most housing communities geared toward older adults don't even like to use the word "retirement" anymore. Some carry labels such as "active adult" or "pre-retirement." Whatever the phrasing, more and more developments for adults facing fresh beginnings are popping up.

The best thing about these communities is that most offer plenty of activities and knitting booties usually isn't one of them. If you're looking for a continuing care facility, you've got the wrong place. Golf, tennis, gyms, horseback riding, massages, dance lessons and more can turn retirement living into an adult trip to summer camp. Some people plan to continue working full or part time. Many travel extensively while maintaining their residence. Others choose to buy a second home in a community and many move in permanently.

The following are some of the smartest spots to retire, according to New Choice magazine. All welcome people of all races and religions and most restrict membership to those over 50.

*Sun City Palm Desert, 15 miles east of Palm Springs, is a mountain-view community for those like the idea of golfing on a course bordered by 600 date palms. Also in California, Sun City Roseville, near Sacramento, offers a lodge with an Olympic-size pool, large library and a golf course.

*Want to go to Las Vegas? Sun City MacDonald Ranch and Sun City Summerlin, each within 15 miles of Las Vegas, offer exceptional views, authentic desert shrubs and homes close to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and the bright lights of the Strip.

*Naples Heritage, in Florida, is only a few minutes from Naples, a town filled with pines, cypress trees and lakes. Four pools, a golf course, lighted tennis courts and a fitness center highlight this appealing neighborhood.

*New Jerseyites may want to reside at K. Hovnanian's Four Seasons in Lakewood. With winding streets, this beautiful south Jersey community includes all the amenities.

*Cypress Landing, near Washington, N.C., features custom-built homes that overlook golf course fairways on the Chocowinity Bay.

*In Ohio, Greenbriar River Valley, 15 miles from Cleveland, delivers a sense of spaciousness amid its intimate atmosphere.

*Want an affordable home in Texas? Sun City Georgetown, 30 miles north of Austin, provides limestone-fronted homes, natural caves, American Indian artifacts and rare arrowheads displayed. The town has made Time magazine's list of 10 small-town success stories.

Making a big move is confusing for anyone, no matter what age. When choosing a retirement community, be sure to query the management aggressively, and talk to residents and others who live in the area.

Ask about the reputation, value and management of the community. What's the developer's reputation? How does the value of the overall package compare to that of similar communities? Is the staff friendly? How quickly does management respond to problems?

It's also important to find out about maintenance fees, pet allowances, how the homes were designed and whether the grounds are well-maintained. Also vital — make sure you're happy with the convenience of medical services, airports, shopping and culture. If you think you may need specific health care in the future, make sure those facilities are nearby.

Find out if there are any hidden inconveniences, such as a loud amusement park nearby or errant golf balls headed your way. Check the weather patterns and make sure you'll be happy with the hurricanes, dust storms, humidity or heat.

Last, know what the long-term plans of your future community are and make sure it's equipped to handle future growth.

The book "50 Places to Retire in America" and other similar guides are vital — read them cover to cover before packing up the Winnebago and heading to Arizona.