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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.

By Marilyn Gardner / October 30, 2002


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.

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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."

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