Bumps ahead on Easy Street?

As the US population grows older, the needs of retirees are likely to intensify. Early lessons from the 'oldest' county in America.

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Betty Mische likes adventure. Two years ago, after a lifetime of Minnesota winters and three years of widowhood, she longed for a fresh start. She sold her tan stucco house in St. Cloud. She gave her furniture to her nine children. Then, newly unencumbered, she loaded a 13-inch TV set, family photos, and a few clothes into her little white Mazda and set off for Florida.

Charlotte County, Fla, to be precise – a stretch of land nestled between Sarasota and Naples on the state's west coast. It's a part of Florida so alluring to retirees that this otherwise nondescript county now boasts the biggest share of people over 65 of any county in the United States – no, make that in the world.

Mrs. Mische traded snow for an orange tree in the backyard of her manufactured home – one of 200 in an over-55 community in the town of Punta Gorda. "It's a new life I've created," she exults. "It's wonderful."

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If it weren't so wonderful, older people like Mische presumably wouldn't keep coming to Charlotte County. The Census Bureau reports that nearly 35 percent of its residents are retirement age – a number that leaps to almost 44 percent every winter, when as many as 30,000 snowbirds flock here.

All this migration has created a sociological laboratory that serves as an important barometer for the nation. Charlotte County is now working through many issues likely to confront other places in the next 15 to 20 years, as baby boomers retire en masse.

The changes taking place in Charlotte County involve every aspect of the community – social-service organizations, businesses, architects, builders, churches, and schools.

Across the country, the question of how best to meet the needs of older citizens will intensify as demographics change. As communities begin drawing up blueprints for a graying society, they will be undertaking a vast experiment.

"There are literally no societies in the world that have had people living two and three decades after they've retired," says David Colburn, provost of the University of Florida and co-author of a new book, "Florida's Megatrends."

Over the next 30 years, the nation's 65-plus population will more than double, to about 70 million. During that same period, the over-85 group is projected to increase from just over 4 million in 2000 to nearly 9 million in 2030.

The implications are huge. In Florida, where 17 percent of the population is now over 65 years of age, Mr. Colburn estimates that by 2025, a third of the state's counties could have senior populations larger than 30 percent. That will make retirees the single most influential group in state politics, shaping the political agenda and candidates' platforms at all levels of government.

In terms of their wealth and income, Colburn says, retirees could continue to have a salutary effect on Florida's economy. "But in terms of their long-term health needs, I don't think anybody knows what the ramifications are."

Signs of retired life appear everywhere in Charlotte County. Billboards advertise gated adults-only communities. A red bumper sticker reads, "Ask me about my grandchildren." Walk-in clinics and medical plazas dot the main highway. Ads for physicians fill 49 pages in the Yellow Pages. Radio stations advertise life-care centers. A mall opens its doors at 9 a.m. for mall-walkers. And supermarkets sell butter by the half-pound, eggs by the half-dozen, and tiny cans of vegetables for shoppers who cook for one or two.

How did Charlotte County come to be a mecca for retirees?

Locals with long memories trace the county's first influx of retirees back to the late 1950s.

Two large land companies, Mackle Brothers and Punta Gorda Isles Inc., aggressively marketed undeveloped lots to current and future retirees, selling them on contract through salespeople around the country. Bulldozers carved farmland into subdivisions, and buyers gradually began arriving, primarily from the Midwest and Northeast. The first model home opened on Easy Street in Port Charlotte in 1957.

"They were putting up their piece of paradise," says Julie Mathis of the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce.

For many transplanted Northerners like Mische, who moved here to be near three siblings, relocation does bring elements of paradise. It is a place where stately palms punctuate the blue sky, where seagulls arc above the water, and where residents can find myriad ways to fill leisure hours.

A generational divide

Some of that leisure time is spent at local malls, one of the few places that older and younger generations cross paths – not always happily.

Generational tensions came to a head one Friday night two months ago at the Port Charlotte Town Center, the largest mall in the county and a popular gathering spot for students.

That evening, says Diane Ganz, the mall's marketing director, nearly 300 teenagers began getting "a little wild." They were disrupting businesses and customers, including retirees, and people were leaving the food court. "We needed to address the issue before it became a big problem," she says.

Now, "No Loitering" signs dot entrances, and large posters on the doors carry the headline "An Open Letter to Concerned Parents." It explains that students are welcome in the mall only if they are shopping or attending a movie.

"The bulk of these kids are really good." Ms. Ganz says. "We just don't want the place to become a hangout."

Teens complain that mall managers removed benches outside the food court and now play country music – a deliberate attempt, they charge, to discourage them from congregating.

Some older people had, in fact, been complaining. "Kids crowding together and racing down aisles of the mall scare them, or make them feel unsafe," says parent Teresa Ciarcia.

"Some of the things going on with today's kids remind them of bad things years ago," Mrs. Ciarcia explains. "They walk past and see metal studs in ears and kids dressed in baggy clothes. That would have been a hoodlum years ago. They think, 'There's a gang of hoodlums.' "

In uncharitable moments, some teenagers call the county Cemeteryland and Old Peopleville. Others students counter with positive comments.

"Elderly people are really sweet to me," says Annie Anderson, a high school senior who works at a bookstore in the mall. "I love their style, their plaids and their suspenders. They're so cute. When they come to my store, they aren't pushy and don't try to hurry me up. They're just nice."

Still, she and three friends, who often meet at the mall after school, say there are few activities for them.

"There's nothing to do here," John Goldsmith complains. "Adults are like, 'Go hang out at the beach, go swimming.' "

But the beach does not measure up to fabled stretches of sand elsewhere in the state. Also, because the beach is located quite a distance away, it's not easy for teens to get there.

Places to hang out

In contrast, many retirees spend time at the sparkling gem in this retirement haven – the Cultural Center of Port Charlotte. The sprawling yellow structure is undergoing a $7 million renovation and expansion. Run by an army of more than 1,000 volunteers, it features a 418-seat theater, rooms for meetings and crafts, a library, and a dining room.

Yet the center, built with taxpayers' money but self-supporting, also symbolizes a generational divide. It prompts some residents to ask: Where is a comparable facility for young people?

"There is a noticeable lack of focus on youth-oriented facilities and activities for our young people," says Ms.Smith-Mooney, mayor of Punta Gorda. At times, she adds, there is also "an intolerance or lack of appreciation by older people of young people" – and vice versa.

When children and teenagers started "aggressive" skateboarding and inline skating, Ms. Smith-Mooney recalls, older residents pressured city staff and the city council to ban them from the park.

Looking at one solution, Smith-Mooney spearheaded a successful effort to build a $400,000 skate park in Punta Gorda.

She doesn't, however, think that building a new youth center would be successful, noting that that teens do not always want supervised or structured activity.

Smith-Mooney and other Charlotte County officials are finding that it isn't always easy to provide equally for retirees and younger residents.

Will seniors support education?

Generational priorities also affect education, a key subject in this year's gubernatorial race. Here, as in many parts of the state, schools are overcrowded and teachers underpaid. Teachers' salaries average $37,425 a year, $800 below the state average. Students under 18 account for 15 percent of the county's population, compared with 22 percent for the state and 25 percent nationally.

"We need to make a commitment to kids in this community," says David Gayler, the county's new superintendent of schools. Yet, he understand that "a lot of folks have moved here on fixed incomes and don't want to pay more taxes."

Nearly 53 percent of property taxes go to school budgets. The county spends $5,680 per full-time student, compared with a state average of $5,820.

At the same time, Dr. Gayler sees signs of progress. In eight or 10 school districts in Florida, he says, residents have recognized the need for more money for education. Some trend-watchers speculate that because many baby boomers are college graduates, they may be willing to pay more for schools, even after they retire.

That will be an ongoing need. Since 1996, when Money magazine first ranked Punta Gorda one of the best small cities in the US, more families have been moving here.

But finding services – and a warm welcome – can test parents' patience. Loryn Dahlen struggled to locate a pediatric dentist for her three children. And one day at the post office, a man told her she didn't belong there with the children. "I just turned around and walked out. I couldn't believe it."

A need for special services

Even on days when the Florida sun blazes hot in the sky, Edith Colon likes to head outside to weed and trim the profusion of hibiscus, daylilies, citrus trees, and sycamores that she and her husband planted around their white ranch-style home.

But when she goes back inside, it is to an empty house. A year ago today, Mrs. Colon's husband of 57 years, Nick, died. Although she cherishes warm memories of their long union, she faces challenges familiar to many other older residents: a limited income, a house to keep up, and an inability to drive a car. Some residents also require help with laundry and housecleaning.

Retirees' needs are different from those that local governments are used to supplying to younger residents. Who should provide these needs and others that may be required in the future? And how? These are the types of questions that Charlotte County is wrestling with daily.

Colon lives frugally. She must "parcel a few dollars into a lot of debts," she says. Her tile roof recently developed three leaks. She estimates the cost of a new roof at $18,000. "I don't have that kind of money," she says, adding, "Sometimes older people need financial help."

Getting there from here

Transportation is also a challenge. "I can't drive, and I don't indulge in taxis – too expensive," she says.

The sprawling county has no public buses, but 18 months ago it began a program called Dial-a-Ride. It provides minibus service that costs $700,000 a year in state and federal funds to operate, plus $55,000 for each new bus.

The fare for a door-to-door ride is $2 each way. Even though it requires 24-hour notice, it has been especially popular with Charlotte County's seniors, who take 70 percent of the 1,100 Dial-a-Ride trips each week.

Transportation for older people is "massively complicated," says Rich Weingarten, the county's transit manager. Many cannot walk several blocks to a bus stop or wait in the Florida heat.

Colon, who is in her late 80s, prefers to walk.Many weekday evenings, she walks three miles each way to help out at the Lighthouse Ministry, which serves dinner to homeless people. "I walked nine miles yesterday," she says matter-of-factly. "Three miles to the bank to pay my mortgage, three miles back, then three miles to dinner. I got a ride home."

Even for retirees who still have cars, getting out can sometimes prove challenging, both for themselves and other drivers.

"You learn what defensive driving is all about here," says Sherrie Moody, the mother of two children.

Kandice Cappello also worries when she sees some of the oldest drivers behind the wheel.

"They should not be driving," she says. "They're frail. It blows my mind to think that there are so many people trying to survive on their own."

The rich and the poor

Retirees inhabit two worlds – one of manicured fairways, waterfront homes, and dividend checks; the other of modest mobile homes and fixed incomes. Although Social Security benefits pump $38 million into the local economy every month, not everyone lives on Easy Street.

Among the 35 million Americans over 65, 3 in 5 are women. Half of women over 75 live alone. Women in this age group are also more likely than men to be poor.

Those demographics are apparent at Villa San Carlos, which provides federally subsidized apartments for seniors. Forty-four women and seven men live here, ranging in age from 62 to 98. Residents' income cannot exceed $15,350 a year. Sliding-scale rents range from $53 a month to just under $300. Their address is Easy Street, but their circumstances are not always easy.

"A lot of them have had a lot of money in the past, but for some reason they've lost it, through bad investments, family members, or illness," says Dixie Kidd, the administrator. "Some have recovered quite well. Others resent it terribly."

In an activity room off the lobby, two longtime residents, Irene Peters and Ann Nemes, spend hours each day working jigsaw puzzles. Others affectionately dub them the "puzzle queens," because they have worked more than 320 puzzles in the past three years. Their masterpiece, an 8,000-piece reproduction of a painting by Willem van Haecht, is mounted on one of the walls. It took four months to complete.

Despite physical and financial challenges, the two women exhibit a cheerful equanimity as they slide piece after piece into the latest puzzle on a bright autumn afternoon.

For a long time Mrs. Peters, who has lived at Villa San Carlos for 11 years, spent $350 a month for prescription drugs. Now Medicaid coverage cuts her out-of-pocket costs.

"It was hard – I didn't have anything left for anything," she recalls..

Mrs. Nemes nods, saying, "We need those discount cards from the pharmaceutical companies to help us out."

In a county with three hospitals, 12 nursing homes, and 14 home healthcare agencies, other retirees share that concern. More than 85 percent of Americans over 65 use prescription drugs.

The average out-of-pocket prescription drug expenditure for those who take part in Medicare is $581, reports the Center on an Aging Society.

That compares to $297 for those on Medicaid and $156 for those with private insurance. But in an effort to control Medicaid spending for prescription drugs, more than half of states are changing their policies for 2003, with the likely result that seniors who qualify for this program will now be paying more of the total cost. Another need that eventually affects all retirees is housing. Charlotte County has begun building apartments for lower- income seniors who can no longer afford to maintain their own homes. They pay about $600 a month for a two- or three-bedroom apartment. The first complex includes 225 apartments, and more are on the drawing board.

"It's been very successful," says James Sweeney, housing coordinator. "This is one example of what they need – attractive, decent, safe housing that's well managed, to replace their single-family homes."

Yet some residents who should be living in retirement facilities refuse to give up their homes, Cappello notes.

A few adult children do move here to allow their parents to stay in their homes. Paula Brown, the mother of three young children, arrived from central New Jersey nine months ago so she and her husband could care for her father-in-law. He later died, but the couple decided to stay.

Experts expect caregiving-related moves like hers to become more common as the population ages.

For those who are housebound or unable to cook, food poses an urgent daily need. Meals on Wheels delivers a thousand meals a month. Another group, Senior Friendship Centers, serves 900 meals a month at seven "friendship cafes" for those 60 and up. The suggested donation is $2.50. Funding comes from the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and private donations.

"Sometimes a client has a choice between food and medicine," says Dell Passaretti, a nutritionist who heads the program. Sociability can be as nourishing as the food. One woman told her that without this daily outing, she wouldn't bother to get dressed.

'Idleness' vs. 'leisure'

Two Sundays ago, as the Rev. Skip Struebing delivered his weekly sermon from the pulpit of Peace Lutheran Church, he spoke on a subject close to his heart: the need to reach out.

"God calls us to live in community and not live in isolation," he told 125 listeners seated in the octagonal sanctuary. "We have a responsibility to contribute to the community."

Emphasizing the importance of productive activity, he quoted from Ezekiel 16:49, which refers to "the iniquity of ... an abundance of idleness."

"I'm sure some people didn't like to hear that," Mr. Struebing says, noting that 20 percent of his members are retired. He adds, "Down here people don't use the word idleness, they use the term leisure – leisure living. It sells."

Finding meaningful activity in the midst of abundant leisure remains a challenge for many retirees and those who work with them. Church work, volunteering, even part-time jobs are some of the ways older people can stay connected to the larger society outside the world of retirees – and find meaning in their lives.

But retirees' own appreciation for such activities varies widely, as Struebing has found.

"Some people come down here to retire from the church," he says. "They want a minimal commitment – some of them, at least."

Others, though, tell him they have come here to get "refired," not to be retired. As more baby boomers retire in their mid to late 50s, he expects that within five years churches will be more vibrant. "People are coming down here younger, and coming with a sense of their place in the church and doing ministry."

Struebing calls the need for ministry to the elderly "tremendous." He is continually amazed, he says, by the number of people who live alone and almost never get out. When one spouse dies, the other may go into seclusion.

Volunteer work

Mische, a widow for five years, understands the importance of getting out, staying connected, and serving others. On Tuesday mornings, among other activities, she leads a Cultural Center social group called Life Goes On, for people who have lost a spouse.

"I like to feel I'm sort of a model for other widows," she says. "I want to put some of my enthusiasm and my years of living into them."

She's not the only one to find satisfying activity in volunteer work. Twice a week, Charlotte Bock spends nearly six hours as a "Reading Buddy" at Kingsway Elementary School, helping first-graders master the printed word.

"It's very rewarding to be able to do this, just knowing that you're helping them read when they couldn't before," says Mrs. Bock, a retired nurse and avid golfer who moved here from Michigan 27 years ago with her husband. "You can see the results. You're almost a grandparent helping the children. A lot of them don't have grandparents in the area."

With a laugh she adds, "There is life after golf."

Carol Dunekirchen, director of the Sarasota and Charlotte County Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, coordinates the "Reading Buddy" initiative. It has been harder than she expected to recruit volunteers. Some retirees cannot serve because of health problems. Others have no transportation. Many simply prefer other activities. They may be out boating or perfecting their swing on the county's 16 golf courses.

Still, volunteering meets essential needs here. "A lot of times, budgets are not what they should be," says Doug Smith, a staff member at the retired and senior volunteer program. "Frequently our volunteers will fill in the gap for services that communities need but can't afford."

Rejoining the workforce

In a spacious conference room at the Cultural Center on a cloudless October Friday, more than 100 retirees gather for the monthly meeting of a group called Senior Friends.

Dressed in slacks or shorts, the uniform of Sun Belt retirement, members chat over doughnuts and coffee before a program by the local sheriff. Door prizes produce banter and laughter before members head home.

Or, in some cases, head to work.

Gerry Combs, who attended the meeting wearing her green Publix uniform, works half time as a cashier at the supermarket chain. She retired here two years ago from New York.

This combination of leisure and work promises to become more common. As 401(k)s and pensions shrink with the falling stock market, the proverbial three-legged stool of retirement income – savings, Social Security, pensions – is adding a fourth leg, paychecks. A study released this month by AARP finds that 70 percent of workers aged 45 and older expect to work at least part time in retirement. For some, a job is a necessity. For others, it is a way of staying active and connected.

At Workforce Senior Employment, a job-training center for those 55 and over, Jo Holtzman, a service representative, sees "more and more and more" applicants.

"Some of these people have not worked in 20 years," she says. "Everybody who comes in here tells me how much money they've lost. The last lady had $90,000, all in Enron. Now she has nothing."

Because service-oriented jobs are plentiful here, retirees can find work, says Betty Williams, economic development manager for the county. Yet average wages are low. The county developed as a retirement community and lacks industry.

As more retirees take jobs in the county, Ms. Holtzman sees attitudes changing. In banks, fast-food restaurants, and supermarkets here, old and young work side by side, dissolving walls between them.

"Employers are getting to recognize that the older worker is a very good worker," she says. "They don't have to take time off for babies and families."

Ron Kagan, a retired government worker who moved here from New York 20 years ago with his wife, Rita, recently took a part-time position as a food demonstrator at Sam's Club. "Money always helps," he says as he hands out cups of juice. "I like to be busy, and I like people. A lot of people don't do anything. They're just retired, period."

What the future holds

What does all this mean for state and local governments?

Even current views of retirement will undergo a transformation as people live longer and experience extended periods of retirement, says Carl Renold, professor of gerontology at California State University, Fullerton.

That raises two key questions. The first is financial. "A person may be retired now for 30 years," he says. "As a society, can we support that? Or are we going to find new and innovative ways to keep people active in the workforce for a longer period of time?"

He and many other experts on aging expect careers to continue longer.

"People are starting to think, 'If I'm retired for 30 or 40 years, I need to have the resources to enable me to do that,' " Professor Renold says. "It's got to be quite a bit [of money], if you don't plan on working for those 30 years."

Renold's second question involves health: "Are the baby boomers taking better care of themselves, so we're not going to have this massive amount of folks in nursing homes?"

Issues concerning long-term care, Medicare, and insurance loom large.

Beyond services and programs, what do older people need?

"Friendship, camaraderie, companionship – somebody to understand them," says Kidd, the administrator at Villa San Carlos.

There is also a need for intellectual stimulation. Dale Crockett, a retired minister who takes classes at the Cultural Center, speaks for others when he says, "This is what we want to do in retirement – be perennial students."

Drawing on a study on healthy aging that researchers at Florida State University are conducting in the county, Smith-Mooney, Punta Gorda's mayor, says, "Probably the greatest single ingredient of longevity is having activities and facilities that enable older people to remain active and still be a vital part of the community. We've discovered and have come to truly appreciate that people in their retiring years do have a very significant purpose in the scheme of things."

Renold emphasizes the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle and a healthy disposition throughout life. That includes being active in religious groups, community organizations, and social activities – what he calls "continuing to have a place."

As retirees everywhere strive to maintain their place, Mische, the Minnesota retiree – part realist, part idealist – sums up the challenges and potential rewards of the later years.

"One part of your life is definitely gone," she says quietly. "There are many times when I sit there and think about the past – we all do. But there's another part of life just waiting to be lived."

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