Retirees in South Trek North Again


For Marjorie and Walter Johnson, southern California has been a retirees' delight: Warm weather year round, manicured golf courses, and blossoming bougainvillea and fruit trees.

But after years in Pauma Valley, the Johnsons are moving back this month to their home state of Illinois to be closer to their four sons and grandchildren. "Our sons worry about us out here," says Mrs. Johnson. "So it's good we can be closer."

The Johnsons are part of a growing exodus of American retirees who, after years in the balmy South, are returning North to be near their families or native residences.

The "counterstream" migration, as the northward movement of elderly is called, is expected to steadily grow in coming years as the millions of retirees who headed South during the past two decades find their needs changing.

"It will increase roughly in proportion to the increase in the older population," says Charles Longino, a social gerontologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Florida is still the destination of choice for most pensioners. And New York ranks as the busiest state in terms of the flow of retirees to and from Florida. Between 1985 and 1990, some 104,000 elderly left New York for the Sunshine State, while 9,000 returned from Florida to New York, according to 1990 Census data (the latest year figures are available). New Jersey was second, followed by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

The reverse migration does not signal a waning in the appeal of warmer states, experts say. The long trend of retiring South holds steady, representing a solid percentage of the elderly population.

Instead, the counterstream migration highlights how the needs of retirees change. The motives' for moving include tight finances, the need for support in handling health issues, or a desire to return to family and native regions.

"Retirees who go back North tend to be older, more likely widowed and ... more likely to be in adverse economic circumstances and poor health," says William Serow, director of the center for the study of population at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Many no longer consider outdoor recreation a top priority. They now desire homes with extensive amenities and close, emotional support from their families.

"There are some retirees who never put down roots in the place where they moved and kept strong ties to family and friends where they came from," according to Mr. Longino, author of "Retirement Migration in America."

"Even if they don't have children in the area, if this has been home, it still feels like home and draws them back," adds Betty Olson, marketing representative for Covenant Village, a home for retirees in Northbrook, Ill.

As a result, retirement communities are sprouting up in pockets in the North. In Illinois, for example, such communities are "growing in leaps and bounds - they are popping up everywhere in the suburban counties of Chicago," says Jennifer Picket at the Life Services Network Association, a Hinsdale, Ill.-based organization of retirement communities and nursing homes in Illinois.

Access Wisdom Inc., a company based in Oak Brook, Ill., which helps retirees find residences in the Chicago area, has received in recent years a growing number of inquiries from the elderly in Southern states, says president Betty Read. "We will see more of this," she says.

This migration poses challenges for the businesses and agencies that service this market. Although retirees moving South usually gather in defined residential areas, when returning North they tend to disperse back to their hometowns and families. "It's harder for the industry to get a handle on the counterstream," Longino says.

Some do see a possible shift in the trend. When the baby-boom generation begins retiring in about 15 years, it could upend many of the assumptions of elderly migration. The generation's strong reliance on air travel and communications technology, as well as its comparatively weak attachment to local civic organizations, could make this group of retirees more itinerant than their parents, experts say. A higher proportion might "snowbird," or retain a northern residence while heading South for the winter.

The harsh winter is often the most forbidding feature of a move back North for retirees.

"I like being near my daughter and son-in-law," says Joseph Peine, who moved back to the Chicago area from Florida in May. "But when it comes to the weather and fishing, give me Florida any day."

Still, in many families, young and old cannot resist the appeal of close, day-to-day contact.

"When they live here, we'll get to share our lives with them - out there in California it's just a visit," says Wally Johnson, whose parents are scheduled to move into the Presbyterian Homes elderly community in Evanston, Ill.

"That is the most important thing to me," he says, "being able to drop in on a regular basis."

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