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Growing old in paradise: Realities of age in Sun City Center

SUN CITY CENTER

Every once in a while, Jean Kluger still sets the table for two. When she's not thinking, she pulls the sports section from the newspaper and lays it on his chair.

Then it hits her all over again. Gus Kluger, the man to whom she was married for 37 years, the man whose name is on the placard next to hers outside their condo, the man she was supposed to spend her retirement days with, is gone.

So much emphasis is placed on how dynamic life can be in Sun City Center that, at first glance, it's easy to forget that residents there will grow old.

Advertisements for the retirement community feature "active" seniors playing tennis and creating pottery. There's barely a mention of the nearby hospitals and assisted living facilities.

Beyond the marketing, manicured lawns and pristine golf courses are fears — among some — that a new generation of retirees will pass the community over for a younger model. That they'll think Sun City Center is too old for them.

According to 2011 Census data, the median age of residents is 74. No one wants to say it, but for many residents, this will be their last home.

So what happens when residents actually age in Sun City Center?

Residents say there is nothing to fear. The Guardian Foundation helps residents with bills and finances. The Lifeline program provides medical alert equipment.

Even the community's signature form of transportation, the golf cart, aims to give those who may no longer be able to get a driver's license a sense of independence.

• • •

When Kluger, 72, lost her husband two years ago, she thought her dream retirement went with him.

"You're finally in the part of life where you've got a few bucks, can travel, have a nice home," she said. "Then you lose your companion."

Kluger is on oxygen and in a wheelchair. Her caretakers thought she would need to enter an assisted living facility after her husband's death.

"But I knew there were enough services here that I could live independently," she said.

The Sun City Center Emergency Squad loaned her a walker. Community-provided transportation takes her to the doctor and grocery store each week. Neighbors of her Kings Point condo visit nearly every day.

"They surrounded me with help and care," she said. "I wouldn't leave unless I had to."

Lucille Mallory, 78, knows the feeling.

Her husband, Herschell, died in December.

"Initially, it was just very depressing to come home and not see him in his chair," she said. "It was almost more than I could take."

But like Kluger, she found solace in the people and activities around her.

She got rid of her husband's chair and keeps busy teaching classes, volunteering for the Emergency Squad and doing alterations.

She signed up for a church support group and met more people going through the same thing.

"Several people have asked me, 'Are you going to move back up North?' " she said. "But why would I move now? This is my home."

• • •

Sun City Center has its critics. Those who think there are too many old people, too much sadness, not enough diversity.

But for many residents who call the community home, the thought of leaving, even as their health dwindles, is unfathomable.

That's why David and Margaret Houck, both 85, chose to stay in Sun City Center even after worries of their future care came up.

After living on their own in Sun City Center for more than 10 years, the Houcks moved last year into Freedom Plaza, a continuing-care facility that neighbors the development.

Because they are no longer members of the Sun City Center Community Association, most of the clubs and activities are off-limits. But in an attempt to mimic the retirement community next door, Freedom Plaza provides a scaled-down version of the fun, offering classes in line dancing and yoga.

The Houcks live in an independent-living apartment. Maid service comes once a week, and the couple eats dinner in one of the six dining rooms each night.

"My wife is very happy to get out of cooking," said David Houck, noting that he likes the food at Freedom Plaza. "It's like being on a cruise ship."

And as the couple gets older, the plaza staff will increase assistance as needed.

"They will take care of us for rest of our lives," Houck said.

If he or his wife get dementia or can no longer care for themselves, they'll move into one of the facility's on-site nursing homes.

But the biggest source of support in Sun City Center, residents say, comes from something other than the community association or the facilities. It's the people.

"The support you get from neighbors and friends is not like any other place I know of," Mallory said. "Unless, maybe, heaven."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2442.

Growing old in paradise: Realities of age in Sun City Center 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 4:31am]
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