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Growing younger and older

Clearwater has the highest percentage of residents 65 and older - more than any other city, including St. Petersburg - in the nation.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2001

CLEARWATER -- They came for the water, the beaches, the sun.

CLEARWATER -- They came for the water, the beaches, the sun.

In droves, they sold their northern homes, packed their cars to the gills and pointed them south -- and they're still coming.

Call them what you want: retirees, snowbirds, immigrants. They put Florida on the map as a retirement mecca. And they have made Clearwater the nation's capital for those in the third act of life's drama.

For the second decade in a row, Clearwater can boast it has the highest percentage of residents 65 and older -- more than any other city with more than 100,000 residents in the country, according to 2000 U.S. census figures.

Clearwater was a bit younger in 2000 compared to 1990, as the average age fell slightly from 42.2 years to 41.8 years. City officials say the decline is largely due to an increasing number of Hispanics, whose median age is 25.9.

Of the city's 108,787 residents, 23,357, or 21.5 percent, are 65 and older. The city has 3,877 residents 85 or older, who make up 3.6 percent of the city's population, census figures show.

Nearby St. Petersburg, which has long been referred to as "heaven's waiting room," came in fourth for percentage of those 65 and older and third for the percentage of residents 85 and older.

"That's amazing," said David Hicks, a program supervisor with the Department of Elder Affairs in Pinellas and Pasco counties. "What we're experiencing now in Florida is what most other states will experience 10 years from now."

Clearwater officials say they are keeping pace, pumping $14-million into recreation and another $4.5-million for library services this year. Both services are frequented by the city's elder residents.

"I think we're elder-ready," said Robin Gomez, the city's auditor. "We're responding to their needs, and we're making sure we listen to them."

It would be foolish to ignore them. Seniors, after all, are good for the economy. First of all, they volunteer and help agencies facing tight budgets. They also seem to have access to discretionary income and are more likely to eat out and seek recreational activities, experts say.

It is unclear how the city found itself with so many mature residents.

One factor may be that retirees who have flocked to Clearwater for decades have finally matured.

"Some of it is definitely migration," said June Nogle, a demographer at the University of Florida. "Some of it is the changing mortality rates, the fact that people are living longer and longer."

Women live, on average, 77 years, while men live about 72 years, she said.

What follows a long retirement migration is that fewer people have children, said Amy Pienta, an assistant professor for the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida. In Pinellas, deaths outpaced births during the last decade, meaning there were fewer babies entering the population.

According to Clearwater's senior residents, it is city services, social services and programs that keep them here.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities dot Pinellas. Senior residents here may have meals delivered to them, catch a ride to their doctor or pharmacy and receive help deciphering complicated health insurance laws.

Morton Plant Mease Health Care screens all of its patients and pays close attention to those 85 and older. Nurses there ask a series of questions to find out what their needs are and the hospital has designed programs to help them, said Jackie Munro, director of patient care coordination for Morton Plant Mease Health Care.

For instance, indigent patients may receive help with paying hospital and pharmaceutical bills. Nurses have received training to help them become more sensitive to needs of older patients -- to call them Mr. or Mrs., for example, or find reading materials with large type and larger forks and spoons to counter problems with dexterity. Another program enlists volunteers to call recently discharged patients to see how they are doing and whether they have eaten, among other things, she said.

What hospitals and social service agencies are finding is that patients in their 60s need less help.

"With any luck, we don't see people until they are 75 or 80 and their health is limiting their ability to live independently," said Hicks of Elder Affairs.

As for recreation, seniors may choose from dozens of activities from bridge to fishing to shuffleboard.

Dorothy and Roger Baker have been married for 50 years and have spent 38 of them in Clearwater. The Hartford, Conn., natives say everything they need is right here, including the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club, which draws players from around the world.

"This area has anything you want," said Roger Baker, 70. "No matter what your interests are, you won't freeze doing it."

Fred Cole, 83, wondered what he would do in Clearwater for the entire winter when he started coming 19 years ago. "Heck, I can take up fishing," he told himself. "I always like fishing when I was a younger." He got involved in shuffleboard instead and has little free time between tournaments, visiting his children up north and keeping tabs on his finances.

When asked what the city could do to make things better for seniors, residents didn't have immediate answers.

"We're so content here," Cole said.

It's just one example of how cities such as Clearwater are likely to continue to gray.

"The future for Clearwater may be even more elderly as the baby boomers age," said Nogle, the demographer from the University of Florida. That may force people to change their attitudes about how they describe the elderly. Soon residents may describe elderly as those 85 and older because "65 is still a very active and vibrant time."

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