More retirees are making move north

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

Barney Skiman could have stayed in sunny southern California after his wife died, but he decided to come north.

"My daughter convinced me to live with her," said Skiman, 84, whose son also offered him a place in Sacramento, in northcentral California.

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Two years ago, Skiman moved into an apartment above his daughter's garage, near two of his grandchildren.

Now Skiman, who once worked on NASA's space shuttle and a top-secret, experimental spy plane for Lockheed Martin, builds and flies radio-controlled planes. He's able to watch his granddaughter perform with the cheerleaders. When his daughter and son-in-law ran the Klondike Trail of '98 International Road Relay, Skiman came along for the ride to Whitehorse.

"That's quite a terrain they go over," Skiman said. "Something different, way up in the mountains like that."

The death of a spouse often spurs seniors such as Skiman to move. If they are moving to Alaska, it's usually to be with family, said Jane Demmert at the Alaska Commission of Aging. A 1998 survey of Juneau seniors found 77 percent have family in town and usually see them at least once a week.

There can be a downside to seniors relocating to be near family, said Bob Piggott, director of the National Senior Service Corps, which coordinates senior volunteers. Children and grandchildren often are busy with work and school. Having left their friends and community behind, the relocated seniors can feel isolated and lonely.

"They have no friends," Piggott said. "They're being left alone all day in a new part of the world. It's very frightening for seniors."

Penn State University gerontologist Steve Zarit advises seniors to make the move early, if they are going to at all.

"If they come at a time when they can join a club or work for a charity or get involved with something in the community they'll have a life independent of their children, which is very important," Zarit said.

That worked for Elizabeth Leach, who moved from Illinois to Juneau to live with her son and daughter-in-law two years after her husband died.

"I wanted to spend some quality time with them," the gregarious 86-year-old said. "I like it up here and I just love the scenery."

Leaving wasn't easy. She'd lived in Macomb, Ill., since 1930.

"I had a lot of friends. It was really hard to get up and walk away," Leach said.

But she dove into pinochle card games and other activities at the Juneau Senior Center and quickly met new people. Two nights a week, she takes free computer classes at the South East Regional Resource Center, where she's learning how to e-mail her friends in Illinois.

"We've seen an increase in the number of seniors taking advantage of our programs, even Care-A-Van brings them in on a regular basis," said Karen Smolin, who coordinates the classes, part of a federal program to bring computer skills to elderly and economically disadvantaged people. "(Seniors) are a classic example of those who have missed out on technology."

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