CAMDEN, Maine — When Peg Davis was ready to find a retirement community to move to, she looked north — not south — for a place to spend her later years.
Rather than set her sights on Florida, Arizona or some other warm-weather locale, she packed up and moved from Big Flats, N.Y., to the small coastal Maine town of Camden.
Davis, 73, was in search of the slow pace of a small town with natural beauty, cultural opportunities and “a sense of place.” She hasn’t been disappointed since arriving in 2010.
“I wouldn’t go south of Pennsylvania,” said Davis, who vacationed here for years before making the move. “My mind operates like a Mainer. It doesn’t operate like people who escape to Southern comfort.”
The idea of people who uproot and move when they retire conjures up images of warm, sunny Florida or Arizona. But some of the older members of the baby boom generation, the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, are looking elsewhere, and a number of towns in cooler climates from Maine to Washington have become popular retirement destinations.
Camden is frequently cited in lists of best places for retirees. Others that have merited mention include Asheville, N.C.; Ruidoso, N.M.; Durango, Colo.; the San Juan Islands in Washington’s Puget Sound; St. George, Utah; Medford, Ore.; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Kalispell, Mont.; and towns along lakes Superior and Michigan in northern Michigan.
“Boomers and retirees these days are considering a much wider range of destinations for retirement, often choosing states that don’t commonly come to mind, such as Maine and Montana,” said Mary Lu Abbott, editor of Where to Retire magazine. “Yes, the Sun Belt remains popular, but many people prefer a four-season climate and enjoy the changing of seasons. They seek towns that are safe and have active, appealing downtowns and good hospitals nearby, and increasingly they’re looking for places with a lower cost of living and lower overall tax rate.”
Maine doesn’t have a low income tax rate and housing prices are high in Camden. But the town fits the bill in most other regards, drawing more and more retirees over the years, many of whom have some previous connection to the town, spending summers or vacations in the area.
Camden, with a population of 4,850, has a picturesque harbor that is home to historic windjammers in summer and fall. Nestled at the base of the Camden Hills, the town has its own ski mountain. The downtown has stores and restaurants that are locally owned. Crime is low and incomes and education levels are high.
In 1990, about 33 percent of residents were 55 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2010, nearly half were 55 and over. By last count, Camden has more people in their 60s than in their 20s and 30s combined.
Camden’s median age is 53, which is old even by Maine standards. The Pine Tree State, with the nation’s oldest residents, has a median age of 42.7 years.
Smaller, far-flung places aren’t for all retirees, of course.
They can have long, cold, snowy winters and high housing costs. Many are remote, even isolated. Public transportation often isn’t available, and doctors can be in short supply in the more rural locales.
Some have a shortage of cultural opportunities, good restaurants and part-time jobs.
Different people have different ideas of retirement, said Leigh Smith, who moved to a Camden retirement community with her husband, Ron, from the Boston area in 2003. While Smith and her husband moved to Maine for retirement, a cousin of hers wasted no time moving away from Maine, to Florida, when he stopped working.
“You think, my goodness, why would you retire to Maine? It’s snowy, icy,” she said. “But the winters here, I have found, are better and milder than Boston.”
The idea of going to Florida didn’t appeal to the 66-year-old Smith because of the humidity, crowds and hurricanes. She likes that life here has a slower pace but that there’s still plenty to do.
“It’s like the 1950s here,” she said. “People trust each other. People don’t lock their homes or cars, although we do because we’re from Boston and it’s ingrained.”
She and her husband like that they can walk to downtown, that performance centers and museums are nearby, and that people are active around here — be it walking, biking, kayaking, boating, hiking or volunteering their time for community groups. It’s also important that a hospital is located nearby and there’s bus service from town when they want to go to Portland, Boston or New York.
“When we first visited Camden, neither of us had heard of the town,” said Ron Smith, 70. “But when we were shown the area, we were sold on it pretty quickly.”
With baby boomers now reaching retirement age, they’re looking for places that are walkable with good restaurants, volunteer opportunities and perhaps college courses they might be able to take, said David Savageau, author of “Retirement Places Rated,” now in its seventh printing. They’re also looking for places with familiarity, where they’ve visited on vacation or perhaps spent summers as a child.
For many retirees nowadays, the idea of a “golf kind of idle recreation” retirement associated with Florida isn’t appealing, he said.
“That’s the old view of retirement,” Savageau said. “And it’s kind of dying out, the desert Southwest and South Florida. That was for our parents; for us it might be somewhere closer to home, a college town, a ski resort or a historical area that gets some kind of tourism in season.”