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Ah, those golden years

Sometimes you think, if you look back far enough, you might find the original:

That first retiree who moved to the Tampa Bay area, the one who came for the weather and the low taxes and the cheap real estate. Everyone who came after could find a link to that person, through friends and family, on the Retiree Family Tree.

"Oh, my brother lived here first," they say. Or, "My buddy on the auto line moved down, and the wife and I visited. We bought a house that week." Sometimes it's a variation on the genealogy theme: "We vacationed here and always loved it, so we bought a little place and became snowbirds. Then it got too much, the back and forth, so we stayed all year round."

They got a taste of Florida on these visits or vacations and were hooked.

On and on through the explosive growth of the '70s and '80s. Mobile home parks and small communities with $5,000 slices of paradise. Condos on the beach. New golf-course communities with $100,000 homes and more residents than some of the towns left behind.

The growth turned Pinellas, then parts of Hillsborough and Pasco, and in recent years Hernando and Citrus counties, into the Land that Forgot Time.

No kids. No job. No mortgage. No snow.

No nothing, if you want it.

You even could find a bit of the North at social clubs where people from your state or your company gather to talk about the old days and how darn cold it is up there.

Golf. Travel. Hobbies. Naps. Afternoon movies that aren't crowded. Early dinners and cocktail hours.

Oh, those golden years. Whether stereotype or reality, it sounds like heaven.

Doesn't it?

For this series the Times is showcasing a number of neighborhoods and communities, with the focus on the voices of individual members and residents. In addition to reporting, Suncoast Opinion Surveys asked 980 adult residents in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties about why and how they live here.

There are about 484,200 adults 65 and older in the five-county area, or about 27 percent of the 1.8-million adult population. Here, in their own words, is a look at what some of the area's senior residents have to say about themselves, where they live and why they have chosen Florida.

"Florida has everything

you need when you

are elderly'

Ray Rindone sits in front of his house, in the burning sun of the early morning, surrounded by his wife's plants and several cement lawn statues. He rises easily and extends a handshake that could snap a 2 by 4.

He is 85 and has lived in Florida for more than 20 years, the last 16 or so in Port Richey.

"We love Florida," he says in a strong New York accent. "This is just the best place."

In case you didn't hear: "The best!"

Ray and Fay Rindone came in one of the first large waves of retirees to move south, following a relative first to Inverness and then to Pasco County. This group of retirees discovered the west coast of Florida, turning away from the congestion of Miami, the country's first retirement mecca.

Without the Rindones of the world, who knows what the Tampa Bay area would have become. With people like them, the area became one of the hottest retirement spots in the last two decades.

The Rindones ran a small factory that made children's clothes on Long Island, N.Y. Now they fill their days with card playing and visiting friends and family, including a son and several grandchildren who live in the area.

"Florida has everything you need when you are elderly," Ray Rindone says, and then uses his fingers to count them off. "The climate. Good doctors. Transportation . . . Well, fairly good transportation, if you can still drive."

The people who moved to Florida created what researchers like to call naturally occurring retirement communities. The young weren't excluded; they just didn't live there.

However, many of those areas are switching, especially in Pasco County, as older residents die and younger people move in. This can mean conflict, and it can mean accommodation.

The Rindones' small community east of U.S. 19 is a mix of younger couples and retirees. The Rindones, especially Fay, don't mind the younger people, contrary to the stereotype that seniors only want to live with their own.

"The variety of ages is good," she says, and then laughs. It is a quick, comfortable laugh that brightens the dark living room. "I like seeing the children."

He talks about their neighbors, a couple in their 30s. They came over one day and asked if the Rindones minded if they played their music a little loudly.

"I said sure, hey, why not," he says. "I like it. We used to like to dance, me and Fay. I like rock 'n' roll."

Call them sunshine junkies.

People over age 65 who were asked in a Times survey what they like about living here cited the weather nearly 80 percent of the time. The University of Florida found a similar result when it asked the question to seasonal residents.

Perhaps that is why 80 percent in the survey said they plan to live in Florida the rest of their lives. They'll go back for visits or even summers, but they call this home.

Most never would go back North for good _ until they die. Only 49 percent say they want to be buried in Florida.

Perhaps the roots of transplants don't go so deep. After all, retirement was an odd concept until the 1960s. For one thing, people didn't live as long or worked until they were too frail.

Some simply wanted to live close to family, often living and dying in the same community, sometimes even in the same house.

But when the generation that survived the Depression and fought World War II got ready to stop working, they found themselves with things their parents hadn't had: health care through Medicare; some financial security with Social Security; pensions won by their unions; a nest egg of savings and real estate; and Florida.

Then a funny thing happened to some retirees. In spite of the good weather, the free time, the friends and co-workers who moved down with them, some got old, and some got bored.

The food smell fills the car. Eleven lunches of ham and beans casserole, packed neatly into one large cooler. Another cooler holds the milk, apple sauce, pound cakes and other items.

"This isn't one of the best meals," Jane Lohmann says, a bit apologetically, as if she had made each one herself.

She and her husband, John, are delivering Meals on Wheels for Neighborly Senior Services in Pinellas County. Their weekly route takes them into the homes of residents in northeast St. Petersburg.

Most of the recipients live alone. Some are confined to bed or must use a wheelchair. Some are lonely; most are thankful for the food and the visit; all are elderly retirees who have seen their health and their finances fade with age.

"I think this may be the only good meal some of these people get," says Lohmann, 75, a retired railroad accountant.

Meals on Wheels is the type of government-supported program that is a lifeline for many older Americans. It's a community service backed with federal dollars and private donations.

The 25-year-old program, however, probably wouldn't survive without volunteers, most of whom are older men and women like the Lohmanns. Instead of playing golf or traveling, these older volunteers reach out to their neighbors.

"Some people I know, all they do is play golf," Lohmann says.

Jane Lohmann says she and her husband are fortunate. Florida is like a daily vacation. They have their health and the sunshine.

They also want to give something back. So they deliver the meals one day a week, and she volunteers at St. Petersburg General Hospital.

For Jane Lohmann, community isn't the walls that surround the Mainlands in Pinellas Park, where they live. It's not the neighborhood of dimly lighted, poorly cooled apartments they visit this morning. It's not their two daughters, who live in Arizona and back home in Ohio.

"It's a group of people working together," she says as she places an extra soup on a tray for a woman who is recovering from a hospital stay. "Helping each other. That's it."

"My grandchildren are growing up in a much different time'

Bernice Lazar is the traffic cop, pointing people to the empty seats at the bridge tables in the Seymour-Bell Social Senior Center in Clearwater.

It is almost lunchtime, but these people haven't come to eat. They are here to play.

"Bernice," someone calls out. "Where's our fourth?"

"I've got someone for you," she says. "Hold on."

The room is quickly filling. Like senior centers throughout the Tampa Bay area, Seymour-Bell is a place to play cards or chess, to dance, to talk, to read.

Mrs. Lazar came to Pinellas County 50 years ago after high school. When she looks around the center she operates, she smiles.

"These people meet friends here," she says. "They care about each other, watch out for each other."

It is a place where you learn that age is a relative term.

Frank Dutka of Largo often was the oldest person when he worked at E-Systems. Now at 63, "I'm about the youngest in the room," he says.

He doesn't think of others in the room as old, either.

"When I first came, I was impressed with the forcefulness of these people," Dutka says as he carelessly plays with a deck of cards.

Mrs. Lazar agrees, raving about how active the seniors are, how smart.

Dutka's attention drifts. The cards await.

"Bernice! Where's our fourth?"

A couple of hours later, four people sit around another table, this one in the Friendship Retirement Residence.

It is an assisted living center in Pinellas Park, where seniors _ including a 105-year-old resident _ who need help with cooking, cleaning and other daily activities can get it.

The conversation is rapid and random.

"I don't call Canada my home. I call this my home," says one 82-year-old resident. "This is my home. This is where I will die."

"New York was beautiful," says Jean Giangrande, who is 88. "I lived there once."

"I don't know," adds Glenn Thomas, who is about to turn 80. "I don't get out much anymore."

The Canadian immigrant continues: "I don't feel old. When I was younger, I thought of 80 as old."

"I love scandal," Mrs. Giangrande says as she reads an issue of the National Enquirer with a story about a nude Brad Pitt. "Just not about me."

"I'm going to start a rumor about you and this young man," the immigrant says.

"What?" asks Mrs. Giangrande, who didn't hear the remark.

"Sometimes you have nothing to do and you really get depressed," Mrs. Giangrande adds. "But life is what you make of it."

The computer screens glow in the darkened room. Outside the heat of the late afternoon is oppressive, even under the oaks at the Sanderlin Center in St. Petersburg.

The seniors in this room are learning computer skills, hoping to get jobs or promotions at work. It is part of a government-financed senior employment program that the American Association of Retired Persons operates.

Alice Jackson hopes the course will help her get a better job at the social service center where she works. Mrs. Jackson, 70, also is studying for her high school equivalency exam.

She grew up in rural North Florida and had to work from an early age. Now she has the time to study and says her family is encouraging her.

"A person needs a chance to improve, no matter how old," Mrs. Jackson says.

Unfortunately, she says, some younger people today don't seem to want to work hard. But then, she adds, the world is different today than when she was young _ when being a woman and an African-American held people back.

"My grandchildren are growing up in a much different time," Mrs. Jackson says. "Children aren't kept apart as much. Maybe they won't feel so different about each other."

She turns back to her computer, to a program for her future.

More than 50 miles away, the Parkwood Acres Civic Association is getting ready to meet, in an hour after the covered-dish dinner. Only about 11 people from the Pasco community are here for supper, many fewer than when the snowbirds fill many of the nearly 1,000 homes in Parkwood Acres.

Four couples _ all from Michigan, all retired auto workers and their wives _ sit at one table. They are proud of where they live.

"Even if I won the $20-million lottery, I wouldn't move," Freda Southard says. "I might build a new house though."

They also are proud of the people in their community. "We are like family to each other," says Ken Raymond, the civic association president.

The food from the covered-dish dinner is piled up for seconds, more watermelon and macaroni-and-cheese goes around. Conversation sways to family.

"Too many kids want everything by the time they are 20," says Doris Raymond.

"The ones who are bad today are so violent," adds her husband, Ken.

"When I was their ages, these kids, my dad would get to the seat of the problem, if you know what I mean," says Chuck Manier.

Lack of discipline is a big topic. All agree that kids will be kids, but when Ken Raymond and his fellow security patrol members see kids as young as 10 out late at night, they wonder about parents.

"Kids use language that would blister paint," says Al Hamil. "What are they hearing at home?"

What about the future? How can things be fixed so their grandchildren grow up in a better world?

"I hate to think about it," Juanita Hamil says.

Someone talks about a new world order, about togetherness.

"Community is very important," June Manier says. "We have to pull together."

The eating goes on, then coffee and cake. Stories of Michigan winters mix with union talk and automobile comparisons.

For this group, Florida is home.

And why shouldn't it be? It has become so much like what they left. Theirs is a community of co-workers and friends, of people who share their values and their history.

"We worry about each other, even when it's just a little cold . . .'

It is morning again at the Rindones. Once again, Ray Rindone is in front of his house, sitting between the plants and the statues.

The Rindones greet a Times reporter like an old friend, asking about his health, his family. "Bring your wife by next time," Mr. Rindone says. He thinks the reporter is okay, in no small measure because the reporter's mother is Italian and he is from New York. "We understand each other, right?" he asks more than once.

Mrs. Rindone shows a photo, taken 60 years ago. She is wearing a flowing gown that Ray's sister made. He is wearing a dark suit and looks like a thin movie star, maybe like another skinny Italian named Sinatra.

The photo, fading now, captured the beauty of the moment.

A grandchild had another wedding photo restored, brightened as if new. It shows the couple and their attendants, looking so serious, so young.

Mrs. Rindone takes it carefully down from the wall and shows it, noting who each one is. She doesn't want to see it in the newspaper, however, because all are gone now _ except the bride and groom.

But death and old age do not make them sad. Even as five or six friends on their block have died in recent years, they remain happy.

"We have our family. We have our friends. Fay, she plays cards. Our life is good," he says. "Retirement, they've been the best years of my life."

"We look out for each other," she says. "We keep each other company. We worry about each other, even when it's just a little cold he has. I worry."

When a photographer arrives to take their photo, they sit on an iron bench in front of the house, among the plants and the statues.

Ray Rindone wraps his arm around his wife's neck and pulls her close. A headlock of love.

She laughs, more of a giggle.

He smiles, winks, and does it again.

What seniors say

a profile

In a poll conducted in March and April, Suncoast Opinion Surveys asked 980 adult residents in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties about their neighborhoods, their lives at work and at play, and their opinions on issues facing their communities. Here are responses of 228 residents 65 and older. Many of the survey questions were open-ended and allowed multiple answers. (In some cases for comparison, responses from the general public are given in parentheses.)

Where do you live?

Citrus 7%

Hernando 7%

Pasco 19%

Hillsborough 22%

Pinellas 45%

How long have you lived here?

1-2 years 6%

3-5 years 9%

6-10 years 20%

11-20 years 33%

More than 20 years 32%

What do you like most about living here?

79% climate / weather

33% people friendly / variety/friends / family/neighbors

14% beautiful scenery/beach / water/country / plants/environment

12% lots of things to do / many activities / options/metro area

What do you like least about living here?

28% everything's okay / dislike nothing

24% bad weather / hot / storms/hurricanes / no seasons/humidity

19% traffic congestion / badly planned roads / construction

13% crime/laws not enforced / fear/drugs / robberies

What you say about your neighborhoods

95% feel safe walking during the day

81% know most neighbors by first and last names

76% helped a neighbor or been helped in past three months

68% talk with neighbors many times a week

62% feel safe walking at night

Organizations a member of the household regularly participates in

25% fraternal/social

24% religious/church

18% sports or recreation

14% neighborhood

14% volunteer / non-profit / charities

11% military related

What are the most serious problems facing your communities?

29% crime: vandalism, violence, drugs / judicial system

14% none

12% teens: crime / no respect / nothing to do / need activities

What has gotten better in the past few years?

52% say the stores where we shop

What has gotten worse in the past few years?

50% say the behavior of young people

37% say the public school system

What has stayed the same in the past few years?

53% say the local newspaper

46% say local government

40% say local TV news

Household income

17% Under $15,000 (12%)

27% $15,000-$24,999 (17%)

25% $25,000-49,999 (36%)

11% more than $50,000 (23%)

2% don't know (2%)

18% refused (10%)

Do you own or rent?

76% own home without a mortgage (35%)

16% own home with a mortgage (41%)

7% rent (23%)

1% other

Do you think retirees get more than their fair share from Social Security, about the right amount or not enough?

46% say retirees get about the right amount (33%)

38% say retirees don't get enough (52%)

5% say retirees get more than their fair share (5%)

11% don't know (10%)

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