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Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias

by Andrew D. Blechman

Hardcover, 244 pages, Pgw, List Price: $25 |


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Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias
Andrew D. Blechman

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Book Summary

An engaging portrait of life in America's growing number of gated retirement communities offers a firsthand analysis of a major trend in American society as growing numbers of baby boomers retire, examines the peculiarities of living in these senior utopias, and assesses the social, cultural, and family implications of this increasingly popular phenomenon.

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NPR stories about Leisureville

The Villages retirement community in central Florida had 8,000 residents in 2000 — now it has 80,000, and it continues to grow. Julia Robertson/www.aeroimaging.org hide caption

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Julia Robertson/www.aeroimaging.org

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Leisureville


Adventures in a World Without Children

Grove Press

Copyright © 2008 Andrew D. Blechman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87113-981-8


1. For Sale........................................12. Where's Beaver?.................................113. The Golden Years................................294. Free Golf!......................................425. How Bananas Got Their Curve.....................566. The Chaz Incident...............................757. Mr. Midnight....................................918. Government, Inc.................................1179. Necropolis......................................14510. Truth and Cow Doo..............................16611. Cluck Old Hen..................................18712. Chasing the Elephant...........................20913. An Idiot's Farewell............................23414. Cat's in the Cradle............................252Epilogue...........................................267

Chapter One

For Sale

It was a typically cold and bleak February morning that I looked out the kitchen window and spotted the sign across the street on Dave and Betsy Anderson's front lawn: For Sale. It came as a complete surprise; I had assumed the Andersons were neighborhood lifers-cheerful acquaintances and active members of our small-town community. Hadn't they just retired? Weren't they still in Florida celebrating their new freedom with a snowbird vacation?

People like the Andersons don't just pick up and leave, do they? And why would they want to go? We live in a charming, traditional New England town, one that people pay good money to visit. Tourists travel from hours away to take in our bucolic vistas, marvel at our historic architecture, dine in our sophisticated restaurants, and partake in our envious number of cultural offerings.

Although we lived across the street from one another for about two years, the Andersons and I weren't particularly close. We didn't barbeque together in the summer, or sit around the fireplace in the winter sipping cocoa. In fact, I don't think I ever invited them inside my home. But we were friendly. When I left town for a few weeks of family vacation the summer before, it was Vic who mowed my lawn, unsolicited. "I had the mower running anyway, so I figured what the heck," he modestly explained.

Dave and I frequently toured one another's yards, comparing notes about gardening and lawn care. His was immaculate, the lawn cut at a perfect 90-degree angle to the house "to soften the edges" of his rectangular home. If a leaf fell, Dave was out there lickety-split with his leaf blower and preposterously large headphones. The shrubs were trimmed into perfect ovals, circles and cones. Dave even tied a rope around his large pine tree drew a tidy circle with it to demark the boundary between acceptable pine needle accumulation and green lawn.

My yard, by comparison, was a far more haphazard work in progress. Dave started to take pity on me, stopping by to give occasional fatherly pep talks. "Been a rough year for crabgrass," he remarked to me one summer day. "I've seen it all over town. Must be the hot weather." Despite my best efforts, huge, gnarly clumps of it had thundered across my lawn. I found his words somewhat soothing (it's not just me!), until I glanced across the street at his dense, verdant turf.

Over the course of these two summers, I also got to know Betsy. Whether Dave was methodically detailing his van or organizing his garage so that every tool had a proper perch, he moved with precision. But Betsy was a firecracker. She drove a candy apple red Mazda Miata, and waved energetically whenever our eyes met across the street. She was the one who loudly cheered me on as I shakily rode my new skateboard down our street. I appreciated her for that.

We were at different stages in our lives and seemingly had little in common. As the Andersons pondered retirement, my wife and I celebrated the birth of our first child. And they obsessively played the one sport we had little interest in learning: golf. But this diversity of ages was one of the reasons we had purchased a house in this particular neighborhood. The generational span seemed to add stability and was somehow endearing.

Besides, I just plain liked the Andersons. They were great neighbors: cheerful, low-maintenance, and reassuringly normal. Which is why the hasty appearance of the 'For Sale' sign threw me for a loop.

The Andersons didn't return until early April, amidst another frosty spring. I ran into Dave a few days later, while out shoveling my driveway yet again. I asked him about the sign and he said something about moving to "sunny Florida." Frankly, with my boots and mittens full of wet snow, I didn't blame him. I said I was sad to see him go, but wished him the best of luck selling his house anyway.

"Aren't you a little sad to be going?" I asked.

Dave puffed on his pipe. His face was one big warm smile, childlike in its intensity. "Nope."

Given the glut of houses on the market-three on our street alone-the Anderson's didn't sell right away, and so we spent another summer trading landscaping war stories. One day Dave found me knee-deep in my shrubs, drenched in sweat, bugs swarming around my face, and my infant daughter perched on my back crying hysterically.

"How's it going?" he asked.

I had spent the morning over-seeding my lawn in an unpredictable wind, and most of it was now in the street. Then I stepped on the sprinkler and broke it.

"Oh, not bad," I managed. "And you?" I got up and tried to shake his hand, but I was too busy swatting at bugs.

"You know, they make a product that you spread on your lawn that takes care of all these gnats and flies," he suggested, offering use of his lawn spreader.

"What does the lawn have to do with all these bugs?" I asked, perplexed.

"Well, that's where they come from, where they live. Haven't you noticed?"

The conversation soon turned to Dave's imminent move. I still felt a little let down by his decision to move away so abruptly. Didn't he feel at least some regret? Weren't he and Betsy going to miss strolling into town for dinner and waving to old friends along the way?

"We never intended to leave the neighborhood, Andrew," he explained. "As you know, I'm not someone who makes rash decisions. But then we discovered The Villages. It's not so much that we're leaving here, as we're being drawn to another place. Our hearts are now in The Villages."

The Villages? The name was so bland it didn't even register. All I could picture was a collection of English hamlets in the Cotswold bound together by narrow lanes and walking trails. But I thought Dave said they were moving to Florida.

Over the course of the summer, Dave cleared up my confusion. At first, his descriptions of The Villages were so outrageous, so over the top, I figured he must have been pulling my leg. Then he started bringing over newspaper clippings from The Villages' own newspaper. As I sat and read them, I was filled with a sense of comic wonder mixed with a growing alarm.

The Andersons were moving to the largest gated retirement community in the world. It spanned three counties and two zip codes, and more than 20,000 acres. The Villages itself, Dave explained, was subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each its own distinct entity, yet fully integrated into a greater whole that shared two manufactured downtowns, a financial district, and several shopping centers, and all of it connected by an extensive network of golf cart trails.

I had trouble imaging the enormity of the place. I didn't have any reference points with which to compare such a phenomenon. Was it a town, or a subdivision, or something like a college campus? And if it was as big as Dave described, then how could residents travel everywhere on golf carts? Dave described golf cart tunnels, bridges and even golf cart tailgates. And these were no dinky caddie replacements. According to Dave, some of them cost upwards of $25,000 and were supped-up to look like Hummers, Mercedes sedans, and hot-rods.

The roads are especially designed for golf cart traffic, Dave told me, because residents drive them everywhere: the supermarket, hardware store, movie theater, even to church. With one charge, a resident can drive about 40 miles, which Dave explains to me, "is enough to go anywhere you'd want to go."

According to the Andersons, The Villages provides its 75,000 residents (they are building homes for 35,000 more) with anything their hearts could possibly desire, much of it sealed inside gates: countless recreation centers staffed with full-time recreation directors; dozens of pools; hundreds of hobby and affinity clubs; two spotless and crime-free village centers with friendly and affordable restaurants; and three dozen golf courses-one for each day of the month-with plans for many more.

More importantly, The Villages provides residents with something else they apparently crave-a world without children. An individual must be at least fifty-five years old to purchase a home in The Villages, and no one under nineteen may live there-period. Children may visit, but their stays are strictly limited to a total of thirty days a year. As a new father, I found this particularly perplexing, although I hesitated to say as much.

I asked Dave, a schoolteacher for thirty years, if he felt uncomfortable living in a community without children, and I'm surprised when he answered that he was actually looking forward to it. "I was tired of trying to imagine what a 13-year-old girl in my classroom was going through," Dave said. "I'm not thirteen, and I'm not a girl. I want to spend time with people who are retired like me."

When I asked about diversity, Betsy said that she didn't much care for it. Dave explained that diversity to him is more about interests and background than about age or racial demographics. "There are very few blacks-although I did play golf with a nice man-and I don't think I've seen any Orientals, but there's still so much stimulus there. Diversity exists if you want to find it. There are hundreds and hundreds of clubs to join, and if you don't find one that suits your interests, they'll help you start one."

Orientals? I hadn't heard that word since the 1970s when Chop Suey was considered an exotic menu item. It never occurred to me how culturally out-of-sync I was with my neighbors. Although Dave and Betsy were young retirees (55 and 62, respectively), we were clearly of two different generations.

"Life in The Villages is really too much to describe," Betsy added. "It's simply unforgettable. For me, it was love at first sight." She patted her heart for emphasis. "I can only equate it to the movie The Stepford Wives. Everyone had a smile on their face like it's too good to be true. But it really is."

"I was real worried about Elizabeth when it was time to go," Dave said. "I was worried she would just crumble when we left to come back up here. The place really touched her heart."

"There are a lot of people just like us," Betsy continued. "I was very comfortable there. It's where I want to be. It has everything I could possibly want."

I was struck by how many of Dave's newspaper clippings described the residents' unusual leisure pursuits, including their fascination with gaining entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. In the eight months Dave had his house up for sale, his compatriots down south qualified for the big book twice: first for the world's largest simultaneous Electric Slide (1,200 boogying seniors), and next for the world's longest golf cart parade (nearly 3,500 low-speed vehicles).

As amusing as these descriptions of daily life in The Villages were, they left me feeling dismayed, even annoyed. Were the Andersons really going to drop out of our community, move to Florida, and sequester themselves in a gated geritopia? Dave and Betsy had volunteered on the EMS squad, and Betsy also volunteered at the Senior Center and our local hospice. By all accounts, they were solid citizens with many more years of significant community involvement ahead of them.

And frankly, our community needed the Andersons. There were whispers that the town was looking to pave over our little neighborhood park with a 20,000 square-foot fire station. The Andersons were a known quantity around town. They were respected and presumably knew how to navigate town hall and the surprisingly acrimonious politics of small-town New England. And now they were leaving-running off to a planned community where such headaches in all probability didn't exist. Rather than lead, they had chosen to secede.

As Betsy described The Villages' accommodations for the terminally ill, it was clear that she had no intention of ever returning to our community. "The rooms overlook a golf course!" she said. "The Villages has even made dying a little more pleasant!"

After spending so much time discussing retirement living with the Andersons, I decided to take a peek at one of the few places in our town that I'd never bothered to visit: the Senior Center. I found it to be a reasonably glum-looking building, resembling an over-sized ranch house with small windows. One look at the activity offerings and it was plain to see that they paled by comparison to the hundreds of goings-on at The Villages: a lunch "excursion" to a local Chinese restaurant, an art class, and a weekly bridge game. A flyer on the bulletin board advertised a free seniors' seminar titled "I don't want to go to a nursing home!"

Money budgeted for seniors' activities and services represented less than one-half of one-percent of our town's annual expenditures. Meanwhile our school system devoured 55-percent of the town budget, and residents had recently approved a $20 million bond issue to build two new schools.

This lopsided arrangement isn't lost on Dave. "Pretty soon, Andrew, your daughter will be school age and your greatest concern will be the school system," he told me one day as I struggled to install a tree swing in my backyard. "You'll want your tax dollars to go there. But our needs are different and we're in competition for a finite amount of resources. It's not a negative thing; it just exists. At The Villages, there's not that same competition. It's not a matter of funding a senior center or a preschool program, because at The Villages we spend our dollars on ourselves."

By September, the little ranch house across the street had found a buyer. The Andersons spent the month packing up their belongings, while I planted crocuses in preparation for winter. The Andersons were positively ebullient on moving day. "The Villages puts everything we had here in a different light," Dave told me, while waving goodbye to our mailman Kevin. "Sure, we had a lovely home, a nice neighborhood, some status in the community, and some good friends. But none of that measured up to the two months we spent in The Villages."

Betsy mechanically surveyed her empty home as if she were giving a hotel room a quick once-over before checking out. "It's called 'new beginnings,'" she said. Dave asked me if I wanted his winter boots. "I won't be needing them anymore," he said.

As the days grew shorter, the leaves turned fiery red and the sky a brilliant autumnal blue, I soldiered on in the garden while my wife pushed our daughter in her new tree swing. It would be several weeks before the new neighbors moved in, and I couldn't help but look across the street at Dave's leaf-strewn yard and empty house. It fell to me to organize the neighborhood against paving over our park, and I reluctantly accepted the challenge. I soon found myself flush with purpose, sitting at the computer writing editorials and waiting outside a local co-op grocery store in a bitter wind for petition signatures.

A few months later, I received an email from Dave. "The Villages' mystique has not dimmed," he wrote. "It was the right move at the right time for the right people. We've asked ourselves many times if we have any regrets. The answer is always the same, 'no.' He went on to invite me down to see the place for myself. "Maybe you'll want to write a book about it."

I'd already started taking notes, awkwardly following the Andersons around and writing down everything they said, like an ethnologist recording an oral history. Their move fascinated me-and kept me up at night. How could two bright individuals be drawn to something as seemingly ridiculous as The Villages? And by the looks of it, they were clearly not alone. Something was afoot; I could feel it. I suspected the Andersons were in the vanguard of a significant cultural shift. I took Dave up on his offer.

As the day of my departure for Florida neared, it occurred to me that I had never visited a retirement community before, and subsequently had no idea what to pack. How does one dress for golf and bingo? I certainly didn't want to cause the Andersons any embarrassment. With gritted teeth, I resolved to purchase a pair of casual loafers, argyle socks, and a sweater vest.