The golden age
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodaySEBRING - For the past 15 years, the Hocketts have sojourned from Wisconsin to Lake Placid.
Published: February 10, 2013
Published: February 10, 2013
"Lake Grassy," said John Hockett, 87. While his wife, Jane, filled a shopping cart Wednesday afternoon, he people-watched from the benches beside Walmart's front doors. "That's where we stay now. We bought a mobile home 12 years ago."
Afterward, they planned to catch a matinee of "Silver Linings Playbook" at Lakeshore Mall. On Sunday, they'll attend Trinity Lutheran Church, where Hockett says senior tithing is generous.
Shorter-term residents stay in hotels like Inn on the Lakes, just a few blocks down Golfview Road from Harder Hall Country Club. Some are there for the golf packages, and most are seniors.
"Over 50 percent," said innkeeper Phil Hatfield. "Maybe even pushing 70 percent this time of year. In the summer, maybe that shifts down under 50 percent, maybe 45. But lots of retired people come here in the summer too."
How many eat at Chicane's, the restaurant inside the hotel?
"I'm sure most of them all do," Hatfield said.
Many winter visitors buy their cars here. "I would say somewhere between 60 percent and two-thirds are seniors," said Don Elwell, director of sales and marketing for Alan Jay Automotive. "It varies a little by makes: Nissan buyers and Kia buyers are younger; Lincoln and Cadillac and Toyota buyers are a little older."
Which is why every year at this time, Doug Andrews is exhausted. South Florida State College's dean of cultural programs booked 11 performances in January, 12 in February and eight in March.
"And I'm trying to program next season," Andrews said.
But why 19 shows in the winter months, and only one in April? His answer can be summarized in one word: snowbirds.
"We have 30 concerts scheduled from November to the end of March," Andrews said. "We only have one or two in the summer. It would be insanity to book Johnny Mathis here on Oct. 20. We just don't have the support at that time of the year."
Without those winter residents, it would be a different concert series, Andrews said.
"We wouldn't be able to afford the quality of acts and the number of acts."
"Safe to say the demographics of this county are very strong with seniors," said Elwell, who is also a Highlands County commissioner.
"I'd say 80 percent of our customers are senior citizens in the winter," said Sandy Jones. Sandy's and Charlie's restaurant is kitty-corner from Sebring's Walmart. "In the summer, it gets a little younger, but it's still 50 percent, maybe 55 percent. We'd like to have a younger crowd coming in. Believe me, I would."
"They are looking for value," Elwell said. "Seniors shoppers are the smartest and most informed shoppers we have."
Jones says seniors "order the less expensive items. They can't eat a lot, so they don't order a lot of food."
"One gentleman came in here the other day looking for a job, and he was 80," said Roger Hood, president of Heartland Workforce.
However, about 10 million Americans rely on others to get dressed, prepare meals and take medication. That number will increase as more of the nation's 78 million baby boomers enter old age. Seven in 10 will need long-term care after turning 65, according to the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute.
Health care in Highlands County is an economy unto itself. The Yellow Pages lists three hospitals with 333 beds, two nursing homes with 596 beds, 12 assisted living centers, 32 dentists and 169 doctors.
Nursing homes include round-the-clock medical supervision, but they come with a steep price tag: the average cost of a semi-private room last year was $81,000, according to a MetLife insurance survey. Private rooms are $90,500.
"Nobody wants to go to a nursing home, it's the last resort," says James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging. "People want to stay in their own home, and if they can't, they want to go to a place where they can get assistance but still feels homelike."
Less intensive alternatives: home-care services that help with meals and household chores, or boarding houses where a small number of seniors live with on-site caretakers. But like nursing homes, these services aren't covered by Medicare or private health insurance.
The least invasive is adult day care, with the average American price tag $70 a day, or $18,000 annually. For seniors who stay in their homes, visiting nurses, technicians and aides prepare meals, administer shots and provide physical therapy. The typical cost for 20 hours per week is $20,800.
"In the coming years," Home Builders Association President Tim Underwood told the Kansas City Star in 2011, "more retiring baby boomers will choose to rent because of both economics and the bother of keeping up aging houses." Highlands County has dozens of mobile home parks.
One more clue to the contribution of winter visitors comes from Highlands County's senior budget manager, Timothy R. Mechling. In February 2012, for instance, $869,000 was collected from the one-penny sales tax. The summer months dip as low as 50 percent, but rise again in October.
"We couldn't survive without them," said Elwell. "They are truly the lifeblood of our economy. Chili's would never have put a restaurant here; they never would have looked at us without the senior demographic. We would have had no more significance to them than Hardee or Glades County."
The Associated Press contributed to this report firstname.lastname@example.org (863) 386-5828