By Kristy MacKaben
For the Mirror
When most northerners begin cranking up the thermostat, some local seniors are packing their swimsuits and sunscreen for their annual trek to states where air conditioners are the norm.
Mirror photo illustration by Gary B. Baranec and Tom Worthington II
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)Gwen and Dick Barrett of Tyrone spend the cold months of the year in Florida with their dogs, Duffy, a Yorkshire terrier, and Whitley, a German shorthair pointer.
Snowbirds, as they're commonly called, spend the colder months in warmer, southern states. For many local snowbirds, that usually means Florida or Arizona, said Cindy Brough, media spokesperson for AAA Central Pennsylvania.
"Right now is a time when a lot of snowbirds pack up and head to their vacation homes and they'll return in the spring," Brough said.
Whether they fly, drive or take the train, they're heading South. While warmer weather is undoubtedly the No. 1 reason for the migration, it's not the only draw.
"It's not simply the weather itself," said Mark Frederick, licensed professional counselor with Altoona Regional Health System.
Sunlight and warm temperatures have been linked to happiness, he said. Studies show there are higher rates of depression and seasonal affective disorders in the Northeast. Sunlight also is good for arthritis, asthma and even memory. It might be attributed to the old sense of cabin fever in the winter months, when it's harder for seniors to get out of the house. It's too cold for most people to enjoy outdoor activities and driving a car might be out of the question for seniors when roads are slippery or snow-covered.
"When you're in a cold climate you have a sense of being cooped up," Frederick said. "That can affect people when they don't have the freedom to do things they want to do."
That's why Dick and Gwen Barrett of Tyrone became snowbirds as soon as they retired 11 years ago.
In January, the Barretts drive to Ormond Beach, Fla., with their dogs, and they stay until March.
Dick, 66, hated being stuck in the house all winter and so did Gwen. They found a nice house to rent, which is slightly smaller than their permanent home. It's enough room for their two dogs and there are plenty of activities.
"We're both active people, and you get confined to a house in January and February up here," Dick said.
He loves to golf and Gwen loves shopping at the outlets.
"We just dearly enjoy walking on the beach. Sometimes you see porpoises and whales," Dick said.
Gwen's brother Ron Kennedy, 72, and his wife Jane, 69, of Hollidaysburg also travel to Ormond Beach for the winter. The Barretts invited the Kennedys down one winter, and they were hooked.
"We just love the weather. It might be in the 70s or 80s there and Ron gets on the computer and says, 'Look. It's 7 below in Martinsburg,'" Jane Kennedy said. "Then we're all happy. We definitely do not miss the winters here," she said. The Kennedys take the auto train from Lorton, Va., because they feel it makes for a more relaxing trip than driving.
"We get on the train at 4 in the afternoon and we arrive in Florida the next morning. We sleep in a roomette on the train," Jane said.
In Florida, the Kennedys rent a small house and they love to ride bikes and go to flea markets. Ron usually golfs with Dick Barrett. They also love the walks on the beach.
"We're 200 yards from the beach. We go every day and collect seashells. Seeing the rising of the sun in the morning is just breathtaking," Jane said.
Sue Ann Hess, 67, of Duncansville loves the beach, but she said there's so much more to enjoy in the Sunshine State.
"There's just so much to do. You don't have to just sit around and read on the beach," Hess said.
The temperatures in Florida were a bit cooler than usual last winter, but Hess did not let it stop her from exploring little towns, taking her daily yoga classes and going to shows and cultural events. She even went to Disney World.
"We've met some wonderful people. We don't expect the weather to always be warm," said Hess, who has been staying at a friend's condo in Indian Shores, Fla., from January to March for the past four years.
She first fell in love with Florida when she took her mom, Jeanne Hoober, (who died in April) there for a visit.
Although they may be living the good life in the winter months, being a snowbird has its drawbacks.
The Barretts, Kennedys and Hess mentioned they miss the kids and grandkids who are miles away.
Hess usually leaves for Florida after her grandchildren's birthdays in January. She talks to them and her kids on the phone, but she hopes to keep in touch even more this year with Skype mobile.
"We miss everyone a lot, but we call them a lot too," Jane Kennedy said. "They encourage us to go."
Being away from family might be hard for snowbirds, but it's not reason enough to stay away from the warmer climates, Frederick said.
"There might be some stress, but it's outweighed by the amount of enjoyment they get," Frederick said.