WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Not a day goes by when Peggy Dunlap isn’t asked whether Winston-Salem is a nice place to retire, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Working the desk at Visit Winston-Salem, Dunlap has a packet of information ready to hand out when people ask that question, although it isn’t written specifically for the older set.
“This is a hot destination for retirees,” she said. “They don’t want to be in Florida because it is too hot. They don’t want the smells of the Northeast. We are in between the mountains and the beach. Every day I am here, they are coming in and asking for information.”
In a time when local leaders talk a lot about attracting young professionals — developing high-tech innovation quarters downtown and creating a night-life scene — a growing wave of senior citizens is quietly working on its own transformation to life in Winston-Salem.
Some of the seniors are simply folks who have lived here for years, growing older in the city where they carved out their careers. Others come to be near children who are working and raising families.
Some just land here. Many are in the forefront of the coming tsunami of baby-boomer retirees that the experts keep talking about.
Bob and Jeanne Metivier have no children and had no ties to this area when they moved to Winston-Salem in 2009. Natives of Massachusetts, their careers led them out west where they lived in San Francisco and later Arizona.
“We enjoy the arts, movies, coffee shops, so this area appealed to us,” said Bob Metivier, 67 and retired. “We like the fact of being back to four seasons. So after we started looking around, we took all the money we had and put it in a condo. We absolutely love Winston-Salem. There is a lot going on.”
Growing older, browner
May is Older Americans Month. The number of people in Forsyth County who are older than 65 increased 18.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, outstripping the total growth rate and the rate among people under 25 years old.
The 2010 Census found 45,511 people in Forsyth who were 65 and older among a total population of 350,670. The over-65 group made up 13 percent of the county’s population — up from 12.6 percent in 2000. There was an even larger increase — 24 percent — among those older than 62 years old, the tip of the tsunami.
Older residents aren’t evenly distributed around Forsyth County. In the area that includes Buena Vista east of Stratford Road and Arbor Acres, a large retirement community, people older than 65 make up 30 percent of the population. At the other extreme is the area that includes Winston-Salem State University and had only 1.2 percent of the population older than 65.
Generally, Forsyth County’s older populations are a higher percentage of the population in white neighborhoods on the western side of Winston-Salem.
That dovetails with some thoughts that James H. Johnson shared when he spoke recently to the Winston-Salem Foundation’s 2014 Community Luncheon. Johnson is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written extensively on community and economic development and demographic change in the U.S.
Johnson flashed up a slide showing that in Forsyth County, the median age of white, non-Hispanic females is 44.8 years. In other words, the average white female in Forsyth County is beyond her prime childbearing years. By contrast, the median age of black females is 34.7 years, and 23 years for Hispanic females.
While the populations of Forsyth County and Winston-Salem are growing older because of aging white baby boomers, they are also growing browner because of the combined effects of higher fertility among nonwhite groups and Hispanic immigration.
Community must meet need
Johnson said that in some places where older people are a major force, division arises between those who want to focus on, say, childhood education, and those who are focusing on issues of greater concern to older residents.
A growing senior population does present Winston-Salem and other communities with new challenges that must be met, according to those on the front line. While some people grow old here with the means to live comfortably in retirement, others struggle with issues that range from transportation to health care.
“We have 131 people waiting for help from a certified nursing assistant,” said Richard Gottlieb, the president and chief executive of Senior Services Inc. The agency helps older people keep living at home, and provides Meals on Wheels, home care and other services.
“If people can afford to call on a private duty nurse, they can get one in the home relatively quickly,” Gottlieb said. “If they can’t afford that and don’t qualify for Medicaid, there are few services and agencies that can help them. And yet, if we don’t provide that help, they are going to have to go to a very expensive nursing home. So it really makes sense for our community to meet the need. It’s a big challenge and I feel like we are treading water and would love to do so much more.”
Gottlieb said that in-home care and transportation are the two biggest concerns in helping the elderly population.
“People may not need 24 hours of medical supervision, but they might need help with things like food preparation, bathing and mobility around the home. As people lose their licenses and ability to drive, they are relying on others to take them to medical appointments and shopping.”
Linda Lewis, the associate executive director of the Shepherd’s Center of Greater Winston-Salem, said the center provides transportation services, but it also carries out a range of other programs to help the elderly remain active and involved.
“Volunteers can provide help in transportation, help with minor home repairs and social contacts,” Lewis said. “They go to visit folks who live alone or provide respite care for caregivers.”
Trans-AID, a service of the Winston-Salem Transit Authority, provides bus service for the elderly and disabled, and the Shepherd’s Center and other groups also provide transportation, Gottlieb said, adding that “it can be overwhelming in terms of service and demand.”
Old, young seek opportunities
But the growing number of older people isn’t just a problem to solve, the experts say. Those older people also give places like Winston-Salem new opportunities.
And it is not as though attracting young people and older people are mutually-exclusive goals, they say. Nowadays, both groups may be looking for a lot of the same things.
The demographics of Forsyth County easily show why leaders worry about how to keep young professionals here and attract new ones. Although the county’s population increased 15 percent from 2000 to 2010, the number of people in that key 25-to-44 age group dropped by 3.3 percent.
“The conversation about young professionals is that we are losing young professionals to Raleigh and Charlotte, and part of the equation (to keep them) is having a vibrant nightlife downtown,” said Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. “But interestingly enough, that is important to everybody. What I am seeing is that retirees are looking to maintain an active lifestyle. They want walkability. More people want to live in a vibrant community than in a gated subdivision. They are interested in getting out of their cars.”
Winston-Salem’s attractions as a place to retire are no secret among the mass media. Johnson told folks at the Winston-Salem Foundation gathering that Forbes and CNN have named Winston-Salem among the best places to retire.
MSNBC called Winston-Salem one of the cheapest cities in which to live. Winston-Salem has gotten high marks from various media outlets for being fun and affordable, being a great minor-league team market, having good health care, and even being among the cheapest cities in which to live expensively.
Bill Benton, a developer who has constructed a lot of housing for low- and moderate-income older people, called it “hogwash” that promoting the city as a place for the young can conflict with attracting the older mover.
“I think we need young professionals,” Benton said. “But also what we need is a 55 year old who runs a firm in Atlanta or Charlotte, and one day realizes they are spending one and a half hours commuting and putting up with all the stuff you have to put up with in a major metropolitan area. They can come to Winston-Salem and live in Washington Park or Ardmore or West End and be 15 minutes from the office with as good health care and as good cultural attractions — the symphony, opera, School of the Arts and all that is going on at Wake Forest.”
Wake Forest University and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have been collaborating on a lifelong learning program designed to give adults a chance to go back to school, without homework, tests and textbooks.
Benton and Gayle Anderson, the president and chief executive of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, are among members of an informal group that has been discussing ways to get the word out about Winston-Salem as a great place to retire.
“When I see articles where they talk about what a great place Asheville or Wilmington or Pinehurst is for retirees, I think, what about Winston-Salem? Relatively young and affluent retirees are looking at what kinds of amenities are in a community,” Anderson said.
“The arts would be very appealing. Golf courses. Biking. If people are interested in lifelong learning they can have opportunities … geared for people who have the ability to take classes during the day.”
Retired, but still active
Winston-Salem has three so-called “continuum of care” residential areas where people can go from independent living to skilled nursing care: Arbor Acres, Salemtowne and Brookridge Retirement Community.
“There are lots of different living options, and you do not have to be affluent,” said Lynn Ross, the director of marketing at Arbor Acres. “We have expanded over the past few years and we have reinvented our assisted-living environment. Winston-Salem keeps popping up on these lists of very desirable places to retire. Consumers in North Carolina have a lot of very good choices, probably more than in most states.”
Meanwhile, those who work with the senior population say older people are themselves among the most dedicated volunteers.
“Senior Services has more than 2,000 volunteers, and the vast majority of them are retirees or older people,” Gottlieb said. “They bring a tremendous skill set to the community. We still have this conception that at 60 or 65 it is time to quit, and nothing can be further from the truth for many people. It is another phase of life that can be very active and productive. Whether it is tutoring kids or helping with graduation rates, you will find a number of retirees that are there on a regular basis. I think that the new retiree is different than retirees in the past, partly because today’s retirees have a longer lifespan and in general are healthier when they retire than seniors in the past.”
The Metiviers volunteer with the Shepherd’s Center, taking older folks to the doctor and on grocery-shopping trips. They said that while they may be retired, they don’t have a feeling that what goes on in the school system is of no concern to them.
“We both feel that it is extremely important that children have really good schools,” Bob Metivier said. “We have to support these schools and all these nonprofit organizations.”
Benton said that people who retire with enough money and those who don’t face different options as they get older.
“People with more money can retire with a lot of options, but if you are elderly and have not accumulated the same kind of assets, the price point needs to be right and the transportation needs to be available.”