Bright Lights, Big City, Gray Hair: Retiring to Manhattan

“Wherever we go, we’re interacting with people,” he said. “That’s good for us. I expect to live longer because we’ve moved here.”

Retiring to Manhattan is not for everyone. It is astronomically expensive, for one thing, and then there are all the things that people who don’t like New York list as their reasons: the crowds, the noise, the dirty sidewalks. Retirees who enjoy relaxing at the country club might not be all that happy, say, strolling down Third Avenue to J. G. Melon, the very urban hamburger joint.

Yet the Chaleffs’ experience is a piece of a small but interesting retirement phenomenon: seniors from elsewhere who’ve chosen to live in New York. If — as this column discussed last month — the preferred retirement spots for Americans are in the Sun Belt states, then New York City, famous for its harsh winters and high living costs, is an offbeat choice.

When Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College, analyzed the 2015 census, he found that 9,359 Americans over age 60 had relocated to New York City (counting all five boroughs) from other parts of the United States. Another 9,996 had moved to the city from overseas.

“This city actually offers older people a lot,” said Lindsay Goodman, the director of Healthy Aging at the New York Academy of Medicine, which researches the health aspects of living in cities. “There’s a wealth of arts and cultural opportunities. Social services and health care are a draw, too.”

Beth Finkel, the director of the New York State office of AARP, noted that there are pluses and minuses to moving to the city that never sleeps — primarily pocketbook-related ones.

“If you can afford to live in New York City, you can’t beat it,” she said. “But the middle class is being squeezed out, and many seniors are struggling to live here because of the high costs.”

Susan D. Fischer, 71, a linguist who had been living in the San Diego area, said that she was “extremely fortunate” to be able to afford her Upper West Side retirement. “I’ve always been frugal,” she said, “and now it’s paying off.”

In 2009, Ms. Fischer found herself suddenly widowed. In that painful time, she decided to reboot her life and move someplace completely new. Her criteria? She needed to live in a town where there were “other linguists to talk with” and where “a widow didn’t feel out of place.”

New York City, with its sophistication and educated populace, fit the bill.

The sale of her home in Del Mar, Calif., for “a seven-figure sum” gave Ms. Fischer the means to buy a two-bedroom co-op near Lincoln Center.


Ms. Fischer in her two-bedroom apartment.

Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

“Once you have your housing organized, it’s possible to live in New York relatively cheaply,” she said.

In her new life — unlike the one she left behind in California — Ms. Fischer “walks a lot,” she said. “I also take public transportation. As a senior, you get this lovely half-price card for the subways. For groceries, I head to Chinatown, where everything is far less expensive than on the Upper West Side.”

Entertainment, Ms. Fischer said, is the big New York bargain. By becoming a member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, she gets unlimited free admission to both. Through the Theater Development Fund, she gets low-cost tickets for Broadway plays like “Oslo” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

Even with such parsimony, Ms. Fischer estimates that she spends $125,000 to $150,000 annually. The big-ticket item is the maintenance fee on the apartment — about $3,000 a month. Other major expenses include income tax, travel and charitable giving.

“On the other hand,” Ms. Fischer notes, “you save a lot by not needing a car. Everything that’s important in my life is within walking distance. Lincoln Center is across the street. My doctor is six blocks away. My dentist is nearby. Who needs a car?”

Richard Scott, a former financial planner who is 90, and his wife, Josephine Ryman Scott, 88, the retired director of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in Alaska, are spending their New York retirement as renters.

For nearly five years, they’ve been residing at a 550-square-foot efficiency on West 56th Street, a block and a half from Carnegie Hall — as the pigeon flies — and about 4,250 miles from their former home in Alaska.

The Scotts’ studio is jammed with a Steinway grand piano, a Murphy bed, two recliners and a china closet full of antiques. The tab is $3,525 a month, which, the Scotts say, eats up their entire Social Security check. The rest of their monthly budget — groceries, travel, theater tickets — comes from savings.

“Our daughter, Shirley, found this apartment for us,” Ms. Scott explained. “She lives on the Upper East Side. We wanted to move here to spend more time with her and because we wanted to experience New York.”

Mr. and Ms. Scott had worked on the arts festival in Fairbanks, which attracts people from all over. “We knew many New Yorkers, so we were certain we could make new friends,” Ms. Scott said.

Her husband chimed in: “That was easy. New Yorkers are the warmest people.”

For example, Mr. Scott said, once, when the couple were leaving an optical shop, they both tripped and fell. “Suddenly, we were surrounded by all these people wanting to help,” he said. “New Yorkers are so caring.”

At their studio apartment, the Scotts have created a kind of salon in the sky. On an almost weekly basis, they have musical evenings and dinner parties. Sometimes they rent the amenities room in their building and host larger events.

During the day, they go to concert and opera rehearsals. On some Sundays, they’ll attend services at New Light Baptist Church in Harlem; the pastor is an old friend from Fairbanks.

On one point they disagree: Ms. Scott estimates that their New York idyll sets them back $5,000 a month; Mr. Scott thinks it’s more like $7,000.

Whatever the price, the party is about to end. As Alaskans, they were never troubled by the perils of a New York winter, but icy sidewalks always seemed a lurking hazard. Like many older people, they worry what a serious tumble could do to their lives.

So, this September, the couple will move to Arizona. They’ve signed up for a two-bedroom apartment in a planned community in Tucson. The cost is less than their studio, and meals are included. Should they ever need it, the development has an assisted-living section they could easily move into.

“It’s important to us to avoid becoming a burden to our children,” Ms. Scott said. “That’s part of why we’re leaving a city we love. These New York years have been glorious — now, onto the next chapter.”

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