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Retirees come together to create pockets of loneliness

Census figures show 13 places in the state where one-resident households are in the majority.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2001

Census figures show 13 places in the state where one-resident households are in the majority.

You can tell by the way she walks: fluid steps on delicate feet. Jan Smith is a dancer.

It's part of who she always has been and always will be. The 74-year-old South Pasadena widow was at the Gulfport Senior Center dance last week, tapping her foot, looking for a partner.

"Most of it looks like couples, so I'll do a lot of sitting," she said.

As fate would have it, she was wrong, and glad to be. Living in one of Florida's most lonely places can make you think like that.

Recently released census figures show 13 places -- some towns, some subdivisions -- are in the state in which more than half of the households have only one resident. South Pasadena, in southern Pinellas County, is one of them, with 57 percent. Most of the rest are on the state's east coast and are typical of the first retirement outposts established in post-World War II Florida.

For better or worse, the most well-worn stereotypes about Florida retirement apply to many of the loneliest places: Condo complexes and mobile home parks populated by aging widows and widowers who play shuffleboard, wear giant wrap-around shades and ride shuttle buses to grocery stores.

They are places like Leisureville, a 107-acre retirement subdivision just outside Pompano Beach. Or, as 76-year-old resident Burt Murtland puts it: "Between the hospital and the cemetery. Literally."

It's a place where the median age is 72, where women outnumber men, and where bocce and bingo are nearly as popular as the citizen's patrol program established by the Broward County Sheriff's Office.

Deputy Tom Demchar, who jokingly calls himself the subdivision's vice mayor, said the residents fight over shifts. They get to drive an old patrol car, wear a special hat and shirt and are equipped with a cell phone to report transgressions. Sometimes they put 1,000 miles a month on the cruiser.

"Our biggest thing when we first started was to get them not to call in condo bylaw violations," Demchar said.

Some, such as Ocean Breeze Park, remain quirky snippets of old Florida. Ocean Breeze is a mobile home park on the Indian River in Martin County that has been owned by the same extended family since 1938, said Sharon Chicky, who doubles as the park's office manager and the town clerk.

The park -- population 463 -- has a comprehensive plan for growth, though there is little of that. Mostly, it's a park filled with working class retirees who buy in for $5,000 to $40,000 (riverfront) and live there part-time. Some of the mobile homes date from the 1950s, Chicky said.

"The park has pretty much stayed the same," Chicky said. "We've tried to keep the old Florida atmosphere."

Several of the most lonely places are sprawling condominium complexes, such as the Kings Point, a 25-year-old retirement community in Palm Beach County.

Paul Dubsky has owned Kings Point Travel and Tours for 21 years. He has watched his original customers age and lose spouses. Typically, he said, it's the women who are left alone. He does a lot of work trying to find travel buddies for lonely women who want to see the world but don't want to go alone.

The men, however, don't have that sort of difficulty.

"When a single man remains here, then all the ladies are after him," Dubsky said. "Right after the funeral even, the same night they get invitations for dinner. They got it made."

The flip side is the case for the women who live in Florida's most lonely places. Agnes Stebelton, 72, president of the South Pasadena Civic Association, said some of her female acquaintances will talk big about going to bars and having a string of boyfriends, boasts that seem far-fetched given the paucity of eligible men. She is a widow. Mostly, she and her girl pals play bingo.

"It's something that we all look forward to," she said.

That, and doing all manner of civic volunteer activities.

Nathan Weitz is a consummate volunteer as well as a man about town. He lives in the granddaddy of lonely places -- Century Village in West Palm Beach. Yes, that Century Village, infamous for the butterfly ballot incident during the 2000 presidential election.

A whopping 65 percent of households in the 30-year-old condominium complex are live-alones, the highest percentage among places with a significant population. And while there is little question many residents are active and enthusiastic, some very lonely people live there.

Weitz, a chipper 79-year-old widower, makes it his business to know as many of them as he can. He listens to their problems and frequently hooks them up with services they need. He is a popular man there, not only for his charming personality, but because he drives and, especially rare, because he can drive at night.

On a recent day, he stopped in to see one of his more troubled friends, 69-year-old Marion Friedman. She suffers from severe depression, a menu of physical problems that leave her in constant pain and has been in and out of assisted living facilities. She lives alone and rarely leaves her condo.

"Nobody puts their arms around me anymore," she said. "There is no comfort in my life."

An educated woman who did the Manhattan and Palm Beach social scenes in her younger days, she cannot bear to accept the person she has become.

"Now I'm just another frail old lady," she said. "And I hate that expression."

Mary Barnes has seen the spiral countless times. As executive director of Alzheimer's Community Care of Palm Beach and Martin counties, she knows huge pockets of retirees are quietly losing it, hoping no one will notice for fear of being warehoused in an institution. People who live alone, she said, are especially vulnerable.

"They can hibernate in their homes where no one will discover them," she said. "It's a ticking time bomb."

Back in Century Village, 89-year-old Tessie Gaber knows she is physically deteriorating. Her reflexes aren't what they used to be. Occasionally, she falls. She has lived alone since losing her husband four years ago.

She knows she shouldn't drive. Yet sometimes, the need to be around other people, to get some familiar food, is just too much.

"I say a prayer and I get into the car to go to the Kosher market," said the New York City native, who has lived in the village for 28 years.

Why does she take her life into her hands when she can afford to hire someone to bring her these things?

"The loneliness," she said. "I cannot even tell you how empty I am."

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