Poll: Seniors Disappointed By Golden Years

Florida has long sold itself as a destination for retirees looking for the good life — golfing, social activities and easy living in "active adult" communities. But, a new poll from NPR, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds that many retirees find retirement isn't living up to their expectations. A quarter of those surveyed says life is worse in retirement than it was before. Many say they're not able to travel and remain as active as they'd like, and major factors are finances and health.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: Over the next 20 years, nearly 80 million Americans will turn 65, the traditional retirement age. Many will choose to spend their golden years in retirement communities that sell not just housing but an active-adult lifestyle. But according to a new survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, many retirees say they're less active and less happy than they were when they were working. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has our story.

GREG ALLEN: The housing industry may be in the dumps, but you wouldn't know it from the many retirement communities being built and marketed in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm a golfer, and I wanted a warm climate. And she likes to walk and play bridge.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We visited a lot of communities...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: But as soon as we stepped into On Top Of The World, we knew that we'd found a new home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three championship golf courses, three clubhouses, two tennis centers, and the Bella Vida spa and fitness center.

ALLEN: Since the time of Ponce de Leon, Florida has cultivated an image as a destination for those in their golden years. According to the ads, people who move here can expect a stress-free retirement spent playing golf, swimming and socializing. To Virginia Paulet, it all sounds good, but out of reach.

VIRGINIA PAULET: I'm ready to retire. Retirement's not ready for me. I mean, I have to keep working just to survive financially.

ALLEN: Paulet is 64 and receiving Social Security, but doesn't expect to retire anytime soon. The sputtering economy, and what she concedes were bad career decisions, have left her unable to quit working. She has lots of company. In a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, Paulet was one of nearly 40 percent of the baby boomers surveyed who have pushed back their retirement plans - many, like her, for financial reasons.

For Paulet, her golden years are not turning out as she expected.

PAULET: I'd like just to have the freedom of doing the things that retirees do - eat out once in a while, play tennis, do all the things until physically I couldn't do those things any longer; paint, catch up on my reading, gardening, you know.

ALLEN: Most of those who have retired say their lifestyle is better or much the same as it was in the five years before they stopped working. But a quarter of those polled say they find life worse in retirement than it was when they were still working. That's significantly higher than the just 14 percent of those still in the workforce who say they expect life to be worse after they retire. Much of the dissatisfaction is because of financial reasons. About a third of retirees say they find they have less money than they need.

But Robert Blendon, with Harvard, says health is also a major factor. And that may come as a surprise to many of those approaching retirement age. Only 13 percent of pre-retirees say they're expecting worse health in retirement.

ROBERT BLENDON: Most people thinking about retirement just don't see the possibility that they could run into serious health problems as years go on. And in fact, nearly four in 10 of our people retired said that their health was worse than just before they had retired.

ALLEN: Many of those surveyed also said retirement is not the stress-free, active life that many of those still working expect. Nearly a quarter of retirees say their stress is greater now than it was when they were working. More than a third say they don't travel as much, and exercise less, than before retiring. Those numbers are all significantly higher than what people who haven't yet retired say they expect.

But at least in terms of exercise, Blendon believes baby boomers may live up to their expectations. The poll shows people nearing retirement age already are exercising much more than their older counterparts.

BLENDON: We really have a generational change recognizing that exercise is one major thing you can do to reduce your health risk in the future, and that's really caught on among the pre-retiree generation. But it's not as strong among people who are already retired.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXERCISE CLASS INSTRUCTOR)

ALLEN: That doesn't mean all retirees are sedentary. There are two-dozen women and one man in this Zumba class in Delray Beach, Florida. The Weisman Community Center is within a short drive of dozens of retirement communities. Natalie Pewter says when she does Zumba, a combination of exercise and Latin dance, it makes her feel younger.

NATALIE PEWTER: I'm going to be 84 years old.

ALLEN: Really?

PEWTER: And I love this. And I exercise three times a week. And I used to go dancing, but my husband can't dance anymore. So this is great for me.

ALLEN: Pewter says she's had her health problems - bypass surgery and a pacemaker. But she's been able to come back and stay active. For baby boomers ready to stop working, she and others here agree that's the key to a happy retirement. They say you have to push yourself, look for outside activities, and maintain a positive attitude. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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