ASHEVILLE – Patty Mewborne Head still gets together with high school friends to ride by her old West Asheville haunts from time to time.
They joyride past the Malvern Hills Pool and the teen center — two places where Head can still remember dancing to jukebox hits and playing ping-pong with the “good-lookin’ boys from Arden and Valley Springs.”
That was a different time and era in Asheville.
It was the ’50s and ’60s, and Head could walk anywhere and everywhere — from her daddy’s store on Haywood Road all the way down to Hall Fletcher to watch the boys play a pick-up game of baseball. One ride around West Asheville takes the 70-year-old right back to those days.
“You could go down there and fall in love 12 times before school started again,” Head chuckled. “It was the greatest place in the world to grow up.”
Now, for Head and the thousands like her, the Asheville area is becoming the greatest place in the world to retire. Her generation is set to change Asheville in many ways — some good, some not so great.
While all of Asheville’s age segments are expected to grow in the next five years, a report released in January shows the greatest growth by far will happen among people between the ages of 65 and 74. That population segment is projected to grow an estimated 21 percent by 2020.
The report, conducted by Ohio-based Bowen National Research, a real estate market consulting firm, used U.S. Census data to make its projections.
The next fastest growing age segment in Asheville is among people older than 75. That population is projected to grow by about 15 percent in the next five years.
The aging trend exists beyond Asheville’s city limits.
The Buncombe County Aging Plan for January 2013-December 2017 estimates the number of individuals age 60 and older are expected to nearly double in Buncombe County during that time.
They will offer Asheville economic promise, but will also put a strain on services.
Her generation will help the community tackle issues head-on, but it will also find itself struggling to belong.
“There’s not just one picture of retirement or aging, and that’s what makes it challenging,” said Don Bradley, an associate professor at Samford University whose research centers on why people move later in life. “There’s been this idea that older migrants coming into a community are an unadulterated good thing for the economy, but it’s just so much more complicated than that.”
With the issue of housing, for example, retirees have been shaping Asheville home prices by buying second-homes at prices locals cannot afford. At the same time, the retirement-aged population is also one of the most vulnerable communities impacted by rising housing costs.
After working in the real estate business for 35 years in Florida, Head decided about 10 years ago that the time had come to retire. She knew where she wanted to be: Back in West Asheville. However, when she began looking for places to live, the prices were just too high for her.
Instead of a house in West Asheville, Head purchased a townhouse in Fletcher.
“It’s kind of like coming home,” she said.
But when she returns home to the mountains, she is also returning to her second home.
Head splits her year between Asheville and Naples, Florida.
She’s a second-home owner — a term many Asheville residents use interchangeably with negative nouns like “out-of-towner” and “snowbird.”
It’s an indictment that gives Head pause as someone who grew up in the mountains.
“I wanted to come back to the area even though I’ve been away for 48 years,” she said. “I worked hard to do this, and I had to give up a lot of other things to make it happen. I’ve never really traveled or done a lot of other things that other people my age have been able to do. To me, it’s a matter of choices, and different people make different choices. I chose Asheville.”
According to the most recent data available through the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, about 4,400 people chose to move to Asheville from another state in 2013 — a figure that accounts for just shy of half of one percent of the city’s total population.
Don Davies, founder of Realsearch, an Asheville company that researches real estate trends, said the impact these older adults are having on the housing market is hard to miss.
Real estate research does not track home ownership rates by age, but Davies keeps hearing a common narrative from the people he hikes with on a regular basis. Unlike Davies, who has lived in Buncombe County for more than 30 years, his fellow hikers are new to town, usually retired and have moved to the area from a more expensive city.
“Where these folks come from, places like New York, D.C., Los Angeles and some parts of Florida, they come here and still think we’re a bargain even though we, the local people, think it’s getting too high. When I said that our house prices are getting really high, they will just laugh at you because $500,000 for a home is nothing compared to where they used to live.”
The median asking price of residences in Buncombe reached $330,000 in March, which means the number of houses costing more than $330,000 was the same as the number of houses costing less than that.
Skip Dillingham, managing broker at Century 21 Mountain Lifestyles real estate agency, said it makes sense that an area that is in demand has higher home costs.
“I’ve always said it costs to live in heaven, and we have a little piece of heaven here in Asheville,” Dillingham said.
While Head chose to retire in Asheville largely because of her childhood ties to the region, others are drawn to the mountain city first as tourists.
In fact, many retirement destinations begin as tourism hubs. Florida’s status as a retirement mecca can be traced back to the 19th century, when New Yorkers would flock to the state to escape their state’s harsh winter months, Bradley said.
“If you have a tourism economy, you bring people there and they have good memories of times spent with their families,” Bradley said. “When those people then reach retirement age, and if they are considering making a retirement move, they may have a limited number of destinations where they can imagine living. Among those places will be areas that they have visited and vacationed.”
But for other older adults coming to the region or aging in the region, their pockets are not always lined with the security of 401(k) plans or a large amount of discretionary spending.
“We hear stories so often about people who are drawn here by the arts and the reputation that Asheville has but it just doesn’t pan out for them or they don’t have a job. That happens with older people, too,” said Wendy Marsh, executive director of the Council on Aging of Buncombe County. “Not everybody who moves here is wealthy.”
According to a market feasibility analysis study conducted in April by Bowen National Research on behalf of Asheville’s Givens Estates Retirement Community, six low-income housing tax credit properties in Asheville have significant wait lists.
At Battery Park Apartments, a 121-unit apartment building in downtown Asheville for adults 62 and older, for disabled individuals and for people that qualify for Section 8 housing, about 150 households were on the waiting list in the spring.
Givens’ Affordable Housing Director Teresa Stephens said these needs are what is driving the development of Givens Gerber Park. The project in South Asheville aims to create 262 units of senior housing, of which 202 will be designed as affordable units for seniors who earn 60 percent or less of the average median income, or less than $26,000 annually. The remaining 60 units will be “workforce housing” for senior households that earn 61-100 percent of the average median income, or roughly between $26,000 and $45,000.
Stephens said there are also plans for offering supportive services at the housing development, including having an onsite primary care office, a community nurse and social worker available and a café where seniors can gather to socialize and also to work if they so desire.
“As more people age, we’re going to need more resources for them, more services, more housing,” Stephens said. “To me, developing a project like this is just common sense. Not all folks are ready for assisted living and not everyone can afford assisted living. When you read about demand here, the need is truly great and it’s only going to get greater.”
According to the Pew Research Center, nationwide, roughly 10,000 boomers will turn 65 every day until the year 2030.
That fact is one that Marsh, executive director at the Council on Aging of Buncombe County, recognizes.
The Council on Aging of Buncombe County is a nonprofit that works to provide services to individuals 60 and older. Marsh said the organization served 8,000 people during its most recent fiscal year, and has seen a 27 percent increase in people accessing them for help in the past three years.
“The older you get, the more opportunity you have to be poor and alone,” Marsh said.
However, on the other side of the picture, older adults can also provide a positive impact on the economy as well — especially in a tourist town like Asheville.
Bradley said older adults who are able to relocate to another city later in life, generally, tend to be more affluent and, by proxy, tend to contribute significant dollars to the local economy.
“Kind of a rule of thumb is that every two migrants to a community generates one job,” Bradley said. “They spend money locally, and it should stimulate the local economy, but that all depends on the local economy’s ability to capture that spending.”
In tourism-based economies, Bradley said, senior spending can actually help to counter a tourism destination’s seasonal economy by spending year-round and stabilizing the market. When the tourists leave, the seniors stay.
Before accepting a position at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, Bradley was an associate professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. There, he studied how North Carolina was affected by people who moved to the state later in life.
Between 1995 and 2000, Bradley said North Carolina saw a net income transfer of $1.1 billion solely due to the influx of older adults migrating to the Tar Heel State.
“And North Carolina should continue to attract a fairly large number of older migrants. It’s a favored destination state, from the mountains to the coast and all the urban areas in between,” he said.
But while this population can sometimes sustain a local economy, it can also strain it.
“The problem is if older adults remain in one place once their resources run out or if they become dependent on Medicaid, Medicare or some other state or locally funded program,” Bradley said.
Medicaid, a federal-state program, helps pay for health care for the needy, aged, blind and disabled, as well as for low-income families with children. Medicare, on the other hand, is a federal health care insurance program for people older than 65 and for the disabled.
Rebecca Chaplain, an aging and disabilities specialist at the Area Agency on Aging at Land of Sky Regional Council was one of the 13 people who served on the Planning Committee of the Buncombe County Aging Coordinating Consortium. The committee authored the Buncombe County Aging Plan for January 2013-December 2017.
She said she is already seeing the impact of the silver tsunami as boomers begin taking care of their parents.
“So many of our staff here are also caregivers. It affects everything from work performance to quality of life. With the boomer generation caring for their parents, they’re usually the invisible patient,” Chaplain said.
Feeling invisible is something that can also happen to people who move to cities later in life, especially if these cities are quick to judge their newfound residents.
However, the way these adults are able to mobilize in communities can pay dividends and can even do things that an area’s locals may not be able to do.
When John Wingerter and his wife, Edythe, looked for places to retire, Asheville represented an eclectic, intellectual and vibrant arts community where they wanted to be during their golden years. In 2006, after 25 years in Toledo, Ohio, the couple moved to Asheville.
However, about six years into his job-free life, Wingerter realized he was not ready to stop working. He sought purpose and he wanted to contribute to his new community.
“I tried retirement, and I decided I didn’t like it at all,” Wingerter said. “I just have to feel productive. I just wanted to do something more, and this opportunity presented itself.”
With 40 years of work history in the insurance business, Wingerter decided to put his skills to use and started volunteering at the Council on Aging of Buncombe County. Now, he helps his peers navigate the challenges of health care insurance as the nonprofit’s director of insurance services.
Wingerter estimates about 22 volunteers are currently helping the nonprofit with Medicare counseling sessions. Almost all of them are retirees. Almost all of them moved to Asheville from somewhere else.
“A lot of folks who retire here are very well-educated folks and they know how to express themselves, make themselves known and make their views known. They’re writing letters to the editor, doing community activities, volunteering with us and places like MANNA FoodBank, Meals on Wheels and others,” Wingerter said. “If it wasn’t for their contributions, the city would be a much poorer place.”
At Meals on Wheels, for example, about 38 drivers are needed every day to bring warm meals to local people in need. Many of the volunteers are retirees.
Catherine Frank, executive director at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, said this volunteerism makes sense because the types of seniors who are drawn to Asheville are not the people that want to sit around knitting on a front porch all day.
They may knit, but they may also kayak.
“So many of our members want to begin their retirement years with hiking, kayaking and biking,” Frank said. “Asheville is like a college town with UNC Asheville here, but it’s also a small city with some big city amenities that still has an intimacy you can capture. If you go to the Asheville Symphony, there’s not a bad seat in the house. In contrast to trying to see a symphony performance in Manhattan, it’s incredibly affordable.”
In 1988, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute — then called the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement — was founded on UNCA’s campus to help people “thrive in life’s second half.” Classes and lectures are given on a variety of topics, from acoustic music to stargazing. The most popular class, Frank said, is on Appalachian history.
Today, 60 percent of OLLI’s members say the existence of the center is among one of the primary reasons why they decided to retire in Asheville.
“They are here because they want to be engaged,” Frank said.
But sometimes that can be easier said than done.
When an individual moves to another city later in life, they are sometimes leaving behind vital support systems and relationships.
“There’s a social division that can occur, and older migrants, generally, do not tend to integrate effectively into their receiving communities,” Bradley said. “When you move into a community as a working-aged adult, there are a couple of key mechanisms that exist. If you have children in schools, you get to know other people that way. If you’re at work, you get to know people through those kinds of connections. Older adults don’t have those avenues open to them. They have to rely on other types of social structures, like church groups or clubs. And if they’re coming from a different region or social class, it only makes integration that much more difficult.”
Sometimes older adults can mean well, but their wants can have negative impacts on a city’s physical environment.
In mountain communities, Bradley said, retirees want beautiful mountain views. But with limited land options, the desires of this population can contribute to sprawl or building homes on mountainsides.
“If you think about a typical housing development aimed at active older adult communities, they are usually designed with golf courses and hiking trails,” he said. “Generally, these developments are located on the furthest outreaches of metropolitan areas.”
However, this population might also be the ones volunteering their time to preserve trails on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Growing as a city with a large senior population can be a delicate balancing act, Bradley said. For example, ageism might rear its head more in community debates even if seniors’ concerns are well-founded.
“If you look at places like Florida, there’s a lot of tension and push-back against older migrants there, and just the number of older adults in Florida in general,” he said. “I was reading through a story in Sarasota (about this issue) and the comments section of the article was brutal. There were plenty of ‘send them back’ and ‘we don’t need them’ sentiments. They can be an easy target.”
As a West Asheville native and a second-home owner for 10 years, Head recognizes the duality of her presence and what the growing population of retirees could mean for her hometown.
Though she lives here six months out of the year, she volunteers at Haywood Street Ministries every Wednesday when she is in Asheville.
“I can’t say I feel guilt for being here. I feel blessed and gratitude more than any other emotion,” she said. “This is home. Florida is home, too. I try to give back. I try to be a good neighbor.”