What Makes Delaware Such a Great Place for Retirement?
Local seniors share some of their later-life experiences.
Marian Lake (left) and her friend Dee Campbell moved from New Jersey to Four Seasons at Silver Maple, a 55-and-older community in Middletown, in 2016. The women have built a large social circle there.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Keeping up with Marian Lake isn’t easy. She exercises, worships, volunteers, attends cultural events and, in her spare time, hosts afternoon tea parties for her neighbors. At 69, Lake is more active, and apparently happier, than people two generations younger.
A 2018 national study sponsored by Cigna found that people ages 18-22 reported being lonelier and in worse health than older generations. That syncs with a 2010 AARP study showing that 45 percent of people ages 45-49 reported significant loneliness, compared to only 25 percent of those 70 and older.
What are older people doing right? It’s all about connectivity, Lake believes—and she’s not talking about Wi-Fi. Being involved in her community is a key component to Lake’s happiness—and she’s new to Delaware.
Lake and her friend Dee Campbell moved to Middletown in December 2016 from central New Jersey. The tax friendliness of the state attracted them, as did the not-too-hot, not-too-cold weather. Campbell, 65, is a professor at the University of Delaware’s School of Nursing and isn’t ready to retire. So Lake developed a circle of friends by attending events alone, something she found difficult at first. “Dee is the more outgoing of the two of us, so it wasn’t easy for me,” Lake says. “I often said to myself, ‘You have to go. You may not want to, but you should.’”
Lake did go, and she keeps going, finding new friends and activities that fit her interests. Now, less than two years after they arrived in Middletown, both women have a wide social circle. How did they reinvent and recharge their lives? One of the most important decisions, Lake says, is choosing the right place to live.
Lake believes friend-making has been easy because she lives in Four Seasons at Silver Maple, a 55-and-older community. Neighbors are of her generation and share her interests, plus most are retired, so they are often available to participate in activities arranged by residents and the property manager. “We have group breakfasts, holiday parties, block parties and everyday things like exercise classes,” Lake says. “You would have to purposefully avoid things not to meet people.”
Janice Grackin feels the same way about Village at Brandywine, the 55-and-older community in which she lives. Grackin, 64, and her husband, David, 65, moved to the Wilmington development from Long Island in July 2017. “The community has a lot of activities that appeal to a wide range of interests,” Grackin says. “We do the things we enjoy and find other people who do, too. That’s how we’ve made friends.”
Grackin acknowledges that it’s easy for a couple to acclimate to a new area because they have one another. Then again, the Grackins don’t do everything together. Grackin’s husband joined the community’s golf club, something she has no interest in doing, and she became a member of the all-female book club. Of course, they do things together, like the Village’s first Friday suppers. “We’ve been going regularly and have connected with couples and singles,” Grackin says. “We sit and chat with people and have a lovely time.”
For some, environment is more important than the social benefits of age-restricted communities. Delaware has a lot of options: beach, riverside, small town, city, upstate, downstate. Robin Kirby loves her home in Millsboro. Kirby, 62, and her wife, Helen Chenoweth, 74, moved to Delaware in 2004. They didn’t travel far, only hopping across the state line from Maryland, but it made a big difference. “Living in Sussex County is like stepping back in time,” Kirby says. “We have country, farmland, fresh water, ocean water. I can’t think of anything better.”
For Joy Murray, beach was the best choice. Murray and her husband, David, both 62, moved to Rehoboth Beach in 2017. The Murrays live in a single-family home, but their development has an active social calendar and an official greeter.
“She came over and asked me if I played pinochle, and I do,” Murray says. “Now I play pinochle once a week with a group of nine to 12 ladies whom I call friends.” Forming a community within a community is important, Murray says, but so is being active in the wider region. That’s why the Murrays joined Cape Henlopen Senior Center.
Eat, pray, travel
Cape Cod is almost as great as Cape Henlopen, Murray says. Last year, she and her husband spent a week at the Massachusetts locale, traveling there with a group from the Cape Henlopen Senior Center. “It was fantastic,” she says. “We visited two destinations each day, like Hyannis Port and Martha’s Vineyard. It was a lovely trip, and we met a very nice group of people.”
The Murrays take advantage of Cape Henlopen Senior Center’s trips to Dover Air Force Base, the Harriet Tubman Museum in Maryland and Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. They also go on the senior center’s so-called mystery lunches. “We get on a bus and don’t know where we’re going until we get there,” Murray says. “It’s a different restaurant every time.”
In May, Murray went on her biggest senior center excursion: a 10-day cruise to the Bahamas.
Senior centers aren’t the only way to meet retired Delawareans.
Lake made a lot of new friends by volunteering at Middletown’s Our Daily Bread, a food and meal center that serves low-income people. “I made new friends from other retirement communities who, like me, volunteer during the day,” Lake says. “Our Daily Bread also has fundraising events and ways to meet new people.”
Grackin got involved with Delaware Community Foundation’s Fund for Women, which awards grants to female-focused nonprofits. She also joined the Siegel Jewish Community Center in Wilmington. “There are so many activities at the JCC and at all times of the day,” Grackin says. “The opportunities to meet people are almost endless.”
Another native New Yorker, Joe Salvato, found similar camaraderie at Holy Family Church in Newark. Salvato and his wife, Loretta, both 66, moved to Newark in 2010. Through Holy Family, Salvato continues his involvement with Knights of Columbus, a fraternal, charitable organization. “I’ve belonged to the Knights since I was a teenager,” Salvato says. “Now, I get to be more active because I’m retired. I’ve met a lot of people through Knights activities, like fish fries, golf outings and a summer fest.” Salvato made even more friends through his other “church”—the softball field.
Salvato is as religious about softball as he is about his worship. “I’ve been playing softball since I was 18 and I haven’t missed a season,” he says proudly. When he moved to Delaware, Salvato played in a church league. But the number of players varied week to week, so Salvato looked for other opportunities. That’s when he found the New Castle County Parks and Recreation’s senior league for people over 62.
Age doesn’t impact the players’ competitiveness. This is serious ball. The five teams in the league hold drafts and have managers, a role Salvato is filling this year. There are morning and evening leagues; Salvato plays in both. Though it is officially coed, the players are almost exclusively men.
But women have many sporting chances in the downstate leagues that Kirby and Chenoweth joined. Volleyball, pickle ball, bowling, tennis—the women participate in all of those sports.
“They are accessible to where we live, which was an important factor in us deciding where to retire,” Kirby says. “Sports introduced us to a wide group of like-minded people. We’ve made so many wonderful friends.”
Senior Olympics is a big part of Kirby’s friend-making. A nonprofit, volunteer-run organization, Delaware’s Senior Olympics holds annual state games and runs yearlong activities. Kirby serves as the group’s vice president. Despite Senior Olympics’ competitive nature, prior experience is not a prerequisite. “A lot of women our age lived in places where sports leagues weren’t available or they didn’t have time to participate,” Kirby says. “We have a lot of members who didn’t previously play sports. Everyone is welcome.” And apparently, many people are taking advantage of that openness. Kirby used to travel two hours upstate to attend volleyball games. Now, there are enough downstate teams to justify meeting in the middle, which is usually Dover. “The other great thing is that we get to meet people from all across the state,” Kirby says.
Salvato also participates in Senior Olympics. He emphasizes the group’s three ideals: fitness, fellowship and fun. That’s true of his New Castle County league, too. “Friendships develop quickly because we’re carousing with the same guys all the time,” he says. “We’re there to exercise, have fun and enjoy the day.”
Salvato has developed a large network of friends through the Parks and Recreation leagues. The men and their spouses meet for picnics and other outings, including the Salvatos’ annual party for 100 of the friends they’ve made in Delaware over the past eight years.
Organized sports aren’t for everyone, but most older folks know the importance of exercise. Grackin goes to the JCC’s fitness center and has made several friends there. Three times per week, Murray does water aerobics with other women in her development. Water aerobics is also part of Lake and Campbell’s routine. It’s one of the workouts they do at the Bear and Middletown YMCAs.
The women work with a personal trainer who specializes in fitness for people their age. That trainer introduced the dynamic duo to their next adventure: serving with the Delaware Medical Reserve Corps. The volunteer group is an offshoot of a national organization formed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Members prepare for and respond to emergencies and provide ongoing health education. Lake, a retired nurse, thinks DMRC is the perfect fit for her.
“The training was inspiring and we met a great group of people,” she says. “I can’t wait to get started.”