“The neighborhood is so immaculate that it resembles a set from Leave It to Beaver, but Wally and the Beaver are nowhere to be seen. There are no bicycles or baseball mitts littering the yards; no school buses; no swing sets; no children playing street hockey. For that matter, there are no children. There aren’t even any young couples holding hands. Aside from the droning of a distant lawn mower, the neighborhood is ghostly silent. Mr. Wilson would be in heaven.”
Welcome to The Villages, “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown”. A few years ago, my friend, Saby Reyes-Kulkarni suggested I read Andrew Blechman’s book, Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias (© 2008, Atlantic Monthly Press). I finally got around to it this week.
Through extended visits to The Villages, Sun City and Youngtown, Arizona, Blechman reveals the lives of those who have embraced the rising trend of segregated (often gated) communities for older adults (the new marketing term is “age-preferred”).
The book details communities of those who wish to carve out a life among their peers, without the annoyances of the rest of society outside their doors. To be sure, the communities are not completely as quiet as the street descibed above. There are a variety of planned activities, shared-interest clubs, karaoke bars, restaurants and even pickup joints. In fact, The Villages made news a while back for the alarming incidence of STDs among their residents.
To me, the community seemed somewhere between 1984 and a childless Truman Show. Every day is “a beautiful day”, as the radio and newspaper proclaim. Easy listening is piped in through lampposts along the streets. Most people get around the
20,000 acre properties via golf carts, some tricked out in preposterous ways. “Big Brother” (developer Gary Morse) lives unseen in a private compound in the center, blanked out on village maps. The completed project comprises a total of 110,000 residents in a cluster of villages covering 33 square miles and extending across three Florida counties. It is 97% caucasian. Young adults and kids have a 30-day visitation limit per year, and the community offers little to attract them even for a short stay.
The residents are wildly enthusiastic about the format and the “lifestyle”–so much so that they basically have no governance body and are content to have the developers make all their decisions for them, (even though, for example, resort improvement costs are passed on to them in wildly inflated amounts). There is little coverage of the world outside, and most are content to be ignorant of the larger troubles beyond their gates.
Are you sold yet? I’m not, and neither was Blechman. The book is worth a read for anyone who is interested in this growing trend and all the nitty-gritty details about what life is like inside these compounds. But why is this happening?
In his concluding chapter, the author starts his critique by railing against the exclusion of young families with children, as if he feels a personal target of prejudice. I thought he had missed what I considered to be the larger points, but he got around to them a bit later.
One of those points is that this trend is, in part, a response to ageism and exclusion of older adults in our larger society. In these communities, elders are visible, engaged, and live life on their own terms (at least within the rules and structure designed for them). They happily trade complete autonomy for visibility and recognition. That’s a strong statement.
A second important point is that the community design is clearly more age-friendly than our usual suburban neighborhoods, although there are few sidewalks, and there still appears to be a denial of frailty and a tendency to move the less able to assisted living homes on the grounds. So there is even ageism (or at least able-ism) within these communities. And the word “dementia” isn’t mentioned.
Finally, Blechman makes an interesting claim–that even though ageism is rampant in American society, the ballooning Baby Boomers will all be over 65 by 2030, and he believes their numbers and economic power will eliminate or even flip the age discrimination seen in our media, advertising, etc. I rejected this idea when I first read it, but I must admit that I am intrigued by the hypothesis.
Accommodations are not cheap, but what is the real cost of this trend? There is a loss for both sides when the older generation segregates themselves. As older adults lose daily contact with the young (family and otherwise), there is also a lost opportunity to share wisdom and create a legacy for succeeding generations.
A woman at Sun City told the author that “things were different at my husband’s last job. He taught on an Indian reservation. It was a traditional community, with elders. If a child misbehaved, my husband only needed to report the child to his elders and the trouble stopped.”
If you think we’re a society that no longer needs community and elder wisdom, open the newspaper.
Fortunately for Blechman, he lives in a community in Massachusetts that embraces all of its members and has both the physical and social infrastructure to help young and old alike live well. We should all be so lucky. Otherwise, this rapidly expanding trend will continue to fragment our society.