Unexpected curves in the retirement road

Four years ago, when Betty Mische decided to retire to Florida, she assumed the move would be permanent. So permanent, in fact, that she invited her nine children to gather at her home in St. Cloud, Minn., and divide up her furniture. She was ready for a fresh start, a new adventure.

Soon Mrs. Mische, a widow, loaded a small TV set, a few clothes, and family mementos into her Mazda and began the long drive to Florida's West Coast.

She bought a mobile home and furnished it simply. She joined a theater group. She also served as a volunteer and worked at a large cultural center. In the process, she says, she made "a zillion friends." Surrounded by sunshine, palm trees, and water, she enjoyed a pleasant life on a modest income.

But in April, something unexpected happened. "I had a strong feeling my life should change," Mische says. When she mentioned that to one of her daughters, the reply came, "Mother, you should come back to Minnesota. You're missing so many things." Suddenly, the tug of family ties seemed irresistible.

"I thought: This is definitely what I'm supposed to do," Mische says. "I told myself, 'Go for it, Betty.' "

She put her home on the market, and two days later accepted an offer. Soon she was signing papers and calling a moving van. "Within a week, I was on the road," she says.

That was May 12. By June 1 she had found an apartment in St. Paul and moved in. Now, instead of looking out on palm trees and the Peace River, she enjoys views of the St. Paul and Minneapolis skylines from her eighth-floor balcony.

Time was when a retirement move followed a predictable pattern: Sell your house in the North. Say goodbye to friends. Put down new roots in the Sun Belt, and stay, in most cases, forever.

Today that rigid sense of permanence is easing for some people. The new attitude is, "Let's try it. If we don't like it, we'll figure out the next step from there."

Demographers call moves like Mische's reverse migration. Some retirees return to the North when they need care from their children. Others make what is called a J-curve: They move from the North to Florida, stay awhile, and then tire of the heat or traffic. Rather than returning to their home state, they go partway back - to the Carolinas, perhaps.

Only about 10 percent of retirees move from their home areas. Most prefer to stay close to family, friends, and familiar surroundings. But as baby boomers retire, sociologists expect patterns to change.

For Mische, moving back to Minnesota wasn't a case of not liking Florida. "I loved it, and I miss my friends," she says. But family bonds won.

Gregarious and energetic, Mische has wasted no time finding activities in her new location. She works as a ticket-taker at Minnesota Twins games and at a hockey arena. She helps her children with everything from baby-sitting to pet- sitting. She's even teaming up with one daughter to lobby for school choice.

Her secret to successful mobility? "Flexibility," she says. "When you're older, it's a good thing to be flexible. There are many of us who are very rigid, and that's not good. Flexibility is very necessary."

Already some of Mische's 17 grandchildren, knowing her love of adventure, are teasing her, saying, "Well, Grandma, where are you going to go next?"

It's a question more families may be asking in the future as retirees write new scripts for their lives. Some might pick up stakes and move again. Others may finally put down lasting roots, echoing Mische when she says, "I'm busy, which I love, and I'm making new friends. Everything is fine. I'm content."

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