Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series of stories that examines the push to attract more retirees to Douglas County.
Bob MacLeay, 86, has led an adventurous life. He earned medals for fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and spent decades after World War II scaling New York skyscrapers, inspecting them as a structural engineer.
MacLeay had no ties to Kansas, but every summer he and his wife would drive west to reunite with Army buddies in California.
Without fail, they would stop in Lawrence and eat at what they considered one of the finest restaurants in the country, Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse.
“We were devastated when they closed for a while,” MacLeay’s wife, Marjorie, said.
After post-retirement stints in Colorado, Massachusetts and Topeka, the MacLeays have chosen Lawrence as their last stop in a long line of residences. They have grandchildren in Topeka and were sold on Lawrence when they saw Meadowlark Estates, a new retirement community that opened this month.
“It’s got enough of a big city feel without being one,” MacLeay said.
Stories like the MacLeays’ are common among people who retire to Lawrence. They come to be near family or because of fond memories attending Kansas University.
Some Lawrence leaders would like to recruit more people like the MacLeays, people they say will bring economic resources and be a positive force in the community. The Douglas County Retiree Attraction Task Force began meeting this month to decide how to help Lawrence become a retirement destination.
Lawrence already has a lot going for it, as attested by its strong showing in national lists of “best places to retire.” But experts in aging say there are improvements that can be made to help put Lawrence over the top in its quest to attract more retirees.
Retiring in LawrencePart 1: City hopes to land more retirees
VIDEO: New Lawrence couple shares thoughts on retiring in Kansas
Part 2: When it comes to attracting retirees, Lawrence could learn from Columbia
Part 3: Attracting more retirees to town will have impact on jobs, services, schools
Why they chose Lawrence
Perhaps no group better exemplifies what Lawrence has to offer retirees than the New Generation Society of Lawrence.
The group has 160 members, who take in lectures and meet with local luminaries such as the Lawrence police chief and the KU athletic director.
They go behind the scenes of the city, visiting the private studio of local artist Jan Gaumnitz and touring the Martin Logan speaker factory.
“It’s amazing what goes on in Lawrence that the general population doesn’t have a clue,” said member Larry Gadt.
The group also has a philanthropic arm and has raised about $5,000 annually for the Lawrence Schools Foundation since the group’s founding 14 years ago. A recent survey conducted by the group found its members donate 938 hours of time to the community per month.
New Generation member Janet Crow said the group had become family to many of its members, especially those who don’t have any family nearby.
And Gadt, who had access to some of the finest museums in the country near his last home in Washington, D.C., is more than happy with Lawrence’s offerings.
Even as retirees are finding ways to get involved in the community, community organizations are becoming better at helping retirees.
Ten years ago, there were dozens of organizations serving senior citizens, but they were largely unaware of what each group was doing. This led to overlap in services, as well as seniors being less aware of what was out there for them.
Now businesses and organizations meet monthly through a coalition called Lawrence Area Partners in Aging.
“That connection of finding out what is going on in town is a big part of being able to help someone,” said Pattie Johnston, who coordinates senior outreach at the Lawrence Public Library.
What Lawrence can do
Victoria, British Columbia, has been called a mecca for the elderly by the Canadian media. It has some of the most pleasant weather in that country and has a higher percentage of people over age 80 than any other the metropolitan area within Canada.
Rosemary Chapin, a KU social welfare professor, recently visited Victoria and admired its response to aging.
Victoria’s government thinks about aging across all departments. For example, if the Department of Transportation is going to repaint lines on the road, it will consider which color is easiest for older people to see.
“That’s one of the big steps — that infusion of thinking about how this is going to affect older adults in every arena,” Chapin said.
Making sure middle-income seniors can afford services could also be key to making Lawrence more retirement friendly.
Right now, the poorest seniors are able to receive government assistance, and the wealthiest can afford services in their own right, said Rebecca Holmes, Project LIVELY coordinator for Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.
“There’s that middle range that are caught paying full price for everything,” said Holmes. “They have a hard time accessing the things they need.”
— Nine Kansas University students have been named as Boomer Futures Fellows and will receive a $1,000 scholarship for the upcoming year.
— The nine students participated in an interdisciplinary colloquium on issues facing the baby boomer generation at KU this spring. They will be encouraged to continue their work on a range of topics. The colloquium focused on housing, community, finance, real estate, law, health care, the environment, social justice, and the social, political and cultural dimensions of aging.
— The student fellows are: Julia Bernard, history; Brenna Buchanan, architecture; Avery Dame, American studies; Sharmin Kader, architecture; Ellen Rozek, psychology; John Shreve, American studies; Erin Smith, Gerontology Center; Jordan Wade, American studies; and Qiang Zhao, American studies.
One solution would be to offer services on a sliding scale based on income or allowing seniors to pay for only what they use, Holmes said.
Though the retirees interviewed for this series said they were pleased with Lawrence’s medical offerings, the city — like the rest of the country — will face a serious shortage of primary care doctors as baby boomers age.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital estimates in 2016, the city will need an additional 10 internal medicine physicians and seven family practitioners.
In the last three years, Lawrence has recruited just one internal medicine physician, said hospital CEO Gene Meyer. It’s a testament to the difficulties most cities have in recruiting physicians when doctors may have 10 to 15 job offers after completing their training.
Competing towns say that could make places with more medical facilities attractive to retirees.
“You’ve got a great hospital in Lawrence, but the health care doesn’t come close to Columbia’s,” said Don Laird, president of the Columbia, Mo., Chamber of Commerce.
Laird said Columbia’s 800 physicians and half-dozen hospitals have been a key part of the city’s efforts to recruit seniors.
Meyer said the Lawrence medical community knows the challenges and wants to meet them. And there is reason to be excited: more jobs.
“There will be a wide range, from primary care, quality health care from the hospital, and home services,” Meyer said.
Gadt, who is in his late 60s, believes the retirement he and his friends at New Generation are enjoying is a new phenomenon. His father didn’t stop working until he had a stroke at 82. His aunts and uncles also never retired. They just worked until they couldn’t work anymore.
Gadt and his wife retired young enough to enjoy a second life after work. To them, Lawrence deserves the accolades it has received in national media as a best place to retire.
“There’s a lot that would draw people here,” said his wife, Jacqueline Gadt. “Lawrence is a great town, and New Generation keeps us busy, active and learning.”