12 Best Small Cities for Successful Aging: 2017

Milken ranked 381 metropolitan areas for elderly adults using metrics not for a relaxing retirement but for an active one

If you’re determined to truly enjoy your retirement—or your extended career—and be able to age in place, rather than moving just in time for retirement, you’ll find that some cities are more congenial to that—possessing an ambiance that provides all, or nearly all, an aging adult needs in pleasant and nurturing surroundings. With luck, you already live in one.

But if not, there are more suitable places, with better features that are more supportive of people growing older even as they begin a new phase of their lives. And with that in mind, the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, in collaboration with the Institute’s Research Department, have released the third edition of their “Best Cities for Successful Aging” report and index.

(Related: 12 Best Big Cities for Successful Aging: 2017)

Pointing out that longer lifespans can mean living into our eighties, nineties or even to or past the century mark, the report points out that “[w]hile the health and economic challenges of aging remain significant concerns, an increasing number of today’s older adults are redefining the experience. They are launching companies and nonprofits, climbing mountains, creating apps and mentoring youth.”

Not that they want to relocate to do so, however—this is not a snowbirds-moving-to-Florida crowd; they want to stay where they are and age in place as they embark on the next stage of life. To do this, some crave smaller settings, while others hunger for the fast pace of the big city and would miss the excitement if they had to function in a scaled-down atmosphere.

But in large or small cities, to fulfill all those lofty ambitions, they’re demanding more of their communities in support of their efforts—as well as in support of their needs. After all, even if older minds can be wiser and more creative as they work at projects that perhaps have waited years for creation, older bodies could have a tougher time keeping up, requiring more and better medical attention.

(Related: 15 Cheapest States for Long-Term Care: 2017)

Obviously some cities, both large and small, do far better at that than others. To determine the best cities for older adults, Milken ranked 381 metropolitan areas, “using refined methodology and updated data in nine categories,” as well as 83 indicators of livability, to find which are the most livable, not only for older adults but of other ages, too.

Among the criteria Milken used are general livability, health care, wellness, financial security, education, transportation and convenience, employment, living arrangements and community engagement. And with other studies indicating that longevity is linked to location, the study points out that the variation is tied to many factors, including education, income, access to health care, food choices, smoking rates, exercise, safety of housing and pollution.

Here are the 12 small metro areas that Milken found to be the best for successful aging.

University of Illinois students cheering.

12. Champaign/Urbana, Illinois

Overall Score: 12

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 12
  • Age 80+ Rank: 11
  • General Livability: 230
  • Health Care: 27
  • Wellness: 92
  • Financial Security: 25

Takeaway: A highly patronized transit system, walkable jobs and short commutes all make the prospect of getting around here very approachable. Add to that hospitals connected to medical schools and a good supply of geriatric units and hospice care, and it’s clear that older people won’t find these surroundings quite as intimidating as other areas where just going from point A to point B can be a real challenge. But high taxes, income inequality, low income and small business growth, high housing costs and lots of fast-food outlets all contribute to Champaign/Urbana’s downside.

Boulder, Colorado.

11. Boulder, Colorado

Overall Score: 11

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 11
  • Age 80+ Rank: 14
  • General Livability: 81
  • Health Care: 52
  • Wellness: 1
  • Financial Security: 115

Takeaway: Boulder tops all the small metro areas in this study for wellness—and there are numerous reasons for this. Walkable neighborhoods, plenty of fitness centers (although the Rocky Mountains can be temptation enough to indulge in exercise), and plenty of primary care physicians and physical therapists help keep the inhabitants at or near the top of their game. A highly educated older population that’s tech-savvy and frequent the Internet also means mental stimulation, as do the cultural amenities in the area. But be warned: it will cost you to live here, with expensive housing, and there’s not all that much in the way of public transportation funding for older and disabled riders.

(Related: 12 Best Big Cities for Successful Aging: 2017)

The Discovery Trading Post in Fairbanks.

10. Fairbanks, Alaska

Overall Score: 10

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 9
  • Age 80+ Rank: 67
  • General Livability: 281
  • Health Care: 15
  • Wellness: 16
  • Financial Security: 15

Takeaway: Fairbanks is big on community engagement, and also eschews fast food in favor of healthy living—but the fact that there’s quite a bit of secondhand smoke and particle pollution doesn’t bode well for those with breathing issues. Still, there’s good primary care available—as well as hospice care. However, for those who aren’t ready to knuckle under to physical woes, there are plenty of outdoor activities, and a healthy, if slow, economy. But beware; that economy is also expensive, with a high cost of living and high housing costs.

City of Logan, Utah Historic Courthouse. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

9. Logan, Utah-Idaho

Overall Score: 9

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 7
  • Age 80+ Rank: 15
  • General Livability: 37
  • Health Care: 236
  • Wellness: 2
  • Financial Security: 88

Takeaway: If you like mountains, you’ll like Logan, on the slopes of the Bear River Mountains. Its health care system isn’t appealing—particularly its hospitals—but in wellness, the city does all right, with low obesity and low diabetes rates, a lot of physical activity (those mountains are tempting) and many adults aging at home. It also has a low unemployment rate for the over-65s, as well as low crime rates and short commutes.

(Related: 10 Most Tax-Friendly States: 2017)

Lawrence, Kansas road map.

8. Lawrence, Kansas

Overall Score: 8

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 8
  • Age 80+ Rank: 16
  • General Livability: 183
  • Health Care: 58
  • Wellness: 46
  • Financial Security: 21

Takeaway: While it’s not so hot on aging-specific health care services, Lawrence does prettywell on other aspects of the issue, like ample primary care, short emergency room waits and affordable hospitals. Tech’s presence is growing here, but the cost of living—as one might expect—is high. So are crime rates. But it’s tied for the lowest unemployment rate among older adults, and few older residents live in poverty here; people are well educated and there’s an appetite for volunteerism among older adults.

Taughannock Falls in Ithaca.

7. Ithaca, New York

Overall Score: 7

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 6
  • Age 80+ Rank: 20
  • General Livability: 202
  • Health Care: 91
  • Wellness: 35
  • Financial Security: 40

Takeaway: In 2014, Ithaca was in 17th place, but gained ground since then in health, wellness, finances and community engagement have helped this city to rise in the rankings. The availability of Cornell University as a resource is major, and the fact that the natural surroundings are gorgeous dangles a lure in front of active seniors who love the outdoors. Public transportation and short commutes add to its attractiveness. But the cost for such elder needs as long-term care is high, and so is the cost of living.

Downtown Ann Arbor. (Photo: AP)

6. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Overall Score: 6

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 13
  • Age 80+ Rank: 6
  • General Livability: 68
  • Health Care: 3
  • Wellness: 34
  • Financial Security: 100

Takeaway: Older people here suffer from high unemployment—a definite drawback to would-be entrepreneurs on a mission—but if once you find a job or calling, good public transit will help get you there and high internet usage by its older citizens signifies a computer-literate group. The University of Michigan draws plenty of researchers and innovators, and the city’s health care system is “state-of-the-art,” but do beware of a high cost of living.

Falls Park in Sioux Falls

5. Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Overall Score: 5

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 5
  • Age 80+ Rank: 4
  • General Livability: 48
  • Health Care: 4
  • Wellness: 101
  • Financial Security: 1

Takeaway: Sioux Falls actually lost points (it was in first place in the “Best Cities” 2012 report) because the overall wellness of its population needs to be improved. But it’s out in front on infrastructure and services, meaning it will offer any post-retirement ventures a good structure for success. And its medical offerings for seniors are also strong. In addition, there are high growth rates in both incomes and small businesses.

(Related: 15 Cheapest States for Long-Term Care: 2017)

City of Columbia, Missouri. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

4. Columbia, Missouri

Overall Score: 4

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 4
  • Age 80+ Rank: 2
  • General Livability: 107
  • Health Care: 2
  • Wellness: 45
  • Financial Security: 12

Takeaway: Not only does Columbia boast a “vibrant college scene,” it has affordable long-term care and plenty of transit funding for older people. It’s got fitness centers galore, a great selection of orthopedic surgeons, primary-care doctors and nurses and many med-school-affiliated hospitals, meaning you’ll get plenty of support for your body while your mind is pursuing those long-postponed retirement objectives. But be warned; there’s income inequality here, as well as weak outreach to enroll the Medicare-eligible population and a sad abundance of depression and Alzheimer’s disease among the population.

Iowa State University campus in Ames, Iowa. (Photo: AP)

3. Ames, Iowa

Overall Score: 3

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 2
  • Age 80+ Rank: 5
  • General Livability: 5
  • Health Care: 43
  • Wellness: 41
  • Financial Security: 8

Takeaway: Ames has the lowest unemployment rate among all the small metro areas evaluated, and has improved its position from its sixth-place ranking in the 2014 “Best Cities” report. Add to that high older-adult internet usage, a top ranking in education and a stable health and employment infrastructure thanks to Iowa State University, and you have a city that can keep you, and probably your project, going for many years to come.

Kansas road sign.

2. Manhattan, Kansas

Overall Score: 2

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 3
  • Age 80+ Rank: 3
  • General Livability: 25
  • Health Care: 8
  • Wellness: 36
  • Financial Security: 16

Takeaway: This “other Manhattan” not only offers a more affordable place to live, it offers plenty of employment opportunities at Kansas State University and Fort Riley. There’s also access to specialty medical care for those who need it, including older-adult care and geriatric specialties. With high elder employment, short commutes, a high rate of volunteerism and a college-town feel, Manhattan has a lot to offer ambitious elders.

Downtown Iowa City.

1. Iowa City, Iowa

Overall Score: 1

  • Age 65–79 Rank: 1
  • Age 80+ Rank: 1
  • General Livability: 27
  • Health Care: 1
  • Wellness: 51
  • Financial Security: 113

Takeaway: If your late-in-life career involves writing, then Iowa City is your place to be. Not only has the city been designated a City of Literature by UNESCO, both employment and education levels here are high—plus there’s accessible transit to get you where you need to go. And since the city has the top rating for health care among all the small cities evaluated, you’ll likely be penning top texts for many years to come.

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