Retiring to the cottage

When Lou and Joan Spence moved into their retirement cottage on Lake Muskoka, it was the beginning of a completely new phase in their lives as cottagers.“About 25 years ago, we bought shoreline property,” explains Lou. “Since we’d been enjoying the area year round, we started building a retirement house on it. I quit work at 63, nearly 10 years ago – but even before then, we lost interest in keeping or maintaining a house in Toronto.”

Like the Spence’s, many Canadians find the idea of retiring to the cottage and living there year round – enjoying a simpler, outdoors lifestyle – the fulfilment of a life-long dream.

But what’s really involved in retiring to the cottage, and making the dream a reality? “Access is the number one factor,” says David Zimmer, editor of Cottage Life magazine. “Are the facilities there – hospitals, ploughed roads in the winter and other important, essential services?”

The availability of such services as medical and long-term care facilities, often taken for granted in major centres, have to be re-assessed when considering living at the cottage year-round, adds Zimmer.

And the presence of a 911 service is anoth factor worth considering. “It’s what cottagers have been asking for and now is finally here,” says Susan Pryke, Mayor of the Muskoka Lakes Township . “It’s a real boon to retirees,” says Pryke, adding that every property in Muskoka now has a civic address, making it easier for emergency vehicles to locate a residence needing assistance. “And it’s easier to give directions when the Beaver lumber truck wants to make a delivery!”

Tony White, Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works for the District of Muskoka, agrees. “I can think of at least three ways Muskoka municipalities have responded to service requirements for cottage retirees,” he says. The list includes snowplowing on low traffic cottage roads; year-round curbside garbage collection; and water and sewer services upgrades. A plowed road was certainly a concern for Norm and Margaret McCrea, who share a private road into their property near the small town of Gravenhurst, two hours north of Toronto. After talking with others living year-round in the area, they’d resigned themselves to having to put up with drifting snow and sometimes impossible roads. But cooperative private plowing arrangements were made, easing winter access, and eliminating the necessity of buying an expensive snowmobile.

A similar dilemma faced Emer and Marcia Bowes, recent retirees to a cottage on Lake Rosseau in Muskoka. They knew they were on a year-round maintained road, but weren’t sure whether their property was suited to winter access. “There’s a long, sloped driveway,” explains Marcia. “We had two cars, so planned to leave one parked at the top all the time. But the constant going up and down for groceries was too much, so we traded one of the cars for a 4X4 vehicle, and everything worked out well.”

The Bowes cottage move also meant expanding the living space for year round use. “We knew we were going to be inside more during the winter,” says Marcia. And special features such as a heated water intake from the lake, their source of water, were added for winter comfort.

Making the cottage more easily accessible was one of the many suggestions covered by Catherine Collins, senior editor at Cottage Life magazine, in her recent article titled The Age of Ingenuity. Collins not only mentions improving access to the property, but discusses ways to re-work stairways and footpaths around the property, making the waterfront more age-friendly, with stairs leading into the water and skid-free surfaces on docks and walkways.

Another very important factor to consider before making the move to a cottage full-time is the distance from family and friends. Of course, there is a positive spin to the distance factor – a home in the country, very often on a lake, is a great lure for friends and family (especially grandkids) to come for an extended stay.

And what of a social life? The Bowes, like many other retirees making the move to cottage country, initially found themselves having to try a little harder to find things to do – and people to do them with. However, as they’re quick to point out, the extra effort has paid great dividends. Not only do the Bowes feel they now fit in, they’ve made some solid friendships amongst the area’s other permanent residents. They’ve built a strong association with their local church, and Marcia volunteers with the Humane Society in nearby Bracebridge. For his part, Emer is involved with the local Cadets, coaching rifle shooting. “But,” cautions Marcia, “We don’t want to get too busy, or we may end up feeling we’ve rejoined the rat race again!”

The McCreas, likewise active in their local church, particularly enjoy outdoor pursuits such as cross-country and downhill skiing and warmer weather pursuits like birdwatching, gardening, canoeing, and walking – all activities found right on their doorstep. “It’s a far more interesting place to retire than the city,” says Marg, “and in the long-run, it’s far more affordable.”