When George and Kate Giffin decided to retire — he as the owner of an Audi and Volkswagen dealership in Guilford, N.H.; she as a psychotherapist — they spent more than a year considering where they wanted to settle down.
They looked at communities in Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and the Carolinas. Initially, they moved from New Hampshire to a property they owned in Nova Scotia, but that felt too far away from family, so they kept looking. None of the places they considered in the southern and southwestern United States met all the criteria they considered important.
They wanted a place where property was available and affordable. They wanted to live in a rural setting, but close enough to a city to enjoy urban amenities. They wanted good hospitals. George, 66, is an avid skier who wanted to be near mountains. Kate, 70, is a painter who desired a vibrant arts and cultural scene. They both love the ocean.
“We had time, and we wanted to find things that were right for both of us,” George said. “All those places had features we liked, but none had the whole blend that Maine offered.”
Neither had ever lived in the state, so they looked at properties in southern Maine and north of Bangor.
“Then we started thinking Bangor had real advantages,” George said. “Proximity to the ocean, shopping, it’s on [I-]95 so we can go north or south pretty easily and Route 9 going to Nova Scotia if we want to.”
In addition, property was available, home prices were reasonable, the health care infrastructure was top-notch, and the rural charm was unbeatable, George said.
The Giffins bought a property in Newburgh, about 20 minutes from downtown Bangor, and moved to Maine in December 2011.
It’s a move they haven’t regretted, George said, because Bangor has turned out to be an excellent place to retire.
Forbes magazine agrees. The magazine recently placed Bangor for the first time on its list of the best 25 places in the country to retire, joining frequently cited cities such as Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville, Fla.
In compiling its list, Forbes said it considered several elements important to retirees, including crime rates, outdoor activities and the availability of health care. The factors carrying the most weight, however, were cost of living, median home prices and tax climate for retirees.
The magazine cited Bangor’s reasonably low cost of living, relatively low median home prices, above-average air quality, a large number of doctors per capita, a low crime rate and the high rate of volunteerism.
Forbes, which made headlines in December when it named Maine the worst state in which to do business for the third year in a row, did point out two negative factors about retiring to Bangor: “cold winters” and a “poor state tax climate.”
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging, when asked about his reaction to Forbes naming Bangor one of the best places to retire. “The state of Maine and the Bangor region, in particular, represent an attractive destination for older adults.”
Kaye noted the low crime rate, the cleanliness, a relatively low cost of living, and the pristine woods and seashore not far away.
David Neally, a Bangor city councilor and publisher of Maine Seniors magazine, also was not surprised by the city’s appearance on the Forbes list.
“We have a lot of opportunities for semiretired or retired people to come to a place that is safe, relatively inexpensive, that has a lot of the cultural amenities and of course the opportunity to enjoy more of what I’d call the sense of community that you don’t get in large metro areas,” he said. “It’s not surprising to some of us that Forbes chose Bangor as one of the best cities to retire.”
And Bangor offers something else, something a little more elusive than outdoor activities and tax rates, Kaye said.
“In Bangor, elders feel they are a significant part of community life,” he said. “They have the opportunity to participate in decision-making — by that, I mean they have members who sit on the town council and boards. It gives them a sort of purpose and meaning.”
And they give back.
George Giffin now gives ski lessons part time at Hermon Mountain, while wife Kate volunteers at the Hammond Street Senior Center, an organization dedicated to providing engaging activities and fostering quality of life for older adults in the Bangor area.
The senior center has roughly 2,200 members, including 936 from Bangor proper, Executive Director Kathy Bernier said. Membership is free for those who are at least 60 years old, or for couples if only one of them is that age, and live within a 25-mile radius of Bangor.
Alta Boothby, who moved to Bangor from South Carolina in May, visits the senior center several times a week to play cards, cribbage and bingo, or to just chat over coffee with new friends.
The center also offers classes in areas such as computer literacy, painting, pottery, jewelry making and yoga.
Boothby, 70, hasn’t taken any classes yet, but expects to soon.
“I thought I’d take painting,” she said when asked what she might try first. “That sounds great.”
The Giffins are also members of the senior center, taking fitness classes together several times a week.
Kaye at UMaine’s Center on Aging said the Hammond Street Senior Center symbolizes the importance the Bangor community places on older adults.
“That senior center is as nice a senior center as you’ll find anywhere in the country,” he said.
The UMaine Center on Aging, the only such organization of its kind in the state, is another testament to the community’s focus, Kaye said.
“We’ve recognized at the University of Maine that the process of aging and growing older is an issue that demands our attention,” he said. “I think that is evidence, too, of the importance we place on the aging experience here.”
Boothby isn’t a stranger to Maine. She was born in Lubec and lived in the Portland area until her 40s, when her husband’s military career brought them to South Carolina. After her husband died, she retired from a 22-year career as a property manager and moved to Maine.
“The reason I came back to Maine is because of the people here. It’s a wonderful state, a beautiful state. People up here are grounded,” Boothby said. “It’s a place where you can meet people easily and become friends, and there’s so much to do here. You wouldn’t think there’s so much to do in a small community, but there is, especially for seniors.”
Boothby enjoys the waterfront concerts during the summertime and attending shows at the Penobscot Theater. She also enjoys how active the city’s churches are.
“You could find something to do every week if you wanted to,” she said.
Access to health care is another factor George Giffin said the couple considered in their decision to move to Bangor.
“Although we had been healthy prior to moving here, we realized that we could need help,” he said.
As it happened, George was helping his neighbor fix a roof last summer when he fell off and ended up in Eastern Maine Medical Center for 21 days.
“So I got to know a little bit about medical care in Bangor firsthand,” he said.
According to census data from 2007, the most recent available, the Bangor region has 374 physicians per 100,000 residents. That is on the high side, but doesn’t place Bangor ahead of other larger cities with major medical centers.
Bangor, or Maine in general, being one of the best places to retire isn’t a universally held notion. For instance, CNN Money didn’t include any Maine cities in its 2012 list of the best places to retire.
In addition, Forbes released another list in February of the best places for a working retirement. No Maine cities show up on that list.
However, Portland, Maine, does show up on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the 10 Places to Reinvent Your Life in Retirement, citing the city’s “fast-growing and vibrant economy” and the University of Southern Maine’s tuition waiver to state residents who are 65 years or older.
It’s clear Maine is a destination for retirees, often those who have summered here, but there’s not sufficient data on the migration of retirement-minded people to know if it’s a growing trend, according to Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.
Regardless, the state’s older population should be seen as an asset, according to Kaye at UMaine’s Center on Aging.
“The increasing number of older adults is not a bad thing. It is not leading us toward the downfall of life as we know it. It doesn’t have to burden the public budget,” Kaye said. “In fact, it can energize the economy if we awaken to the fact older adults can contribute to that economy rather than draw from it. They have great deal of capacity that can be offered that can fuel the economy, and if we’re smart we’ll refine our business thinking so we align it to an aging population.”