Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children: Andrew D. Blechman

“I’d rather bite a suicide pill than live with any of my kids.”

Author Andrew Blechman’s neighbors, retired teacher Dave Anderson and his wife, Betsy, took a holiday to Florida, returned home to their small New England town, and promptly put their house up for sale. Blechman was surprised by the Andersons’ decision, but even more surprised to learn that the Andersons were moving to a gated retirement community in Florida. And not just any retirement community; the Andersons were moving to The Villages:

The Andersons were moving to the largest gated retirement community in the world. It spanned three counties, two zip codes and more than 20,000 acres. The Villages itself, Dave explained, was subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each with 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 nearly 100 miles of golf cart trails.

Before the Andersons announced their impending move, the author had never heard of The Villages, and neither had I until I stumbled across this fascinating, flawed book. The Andersons move, and the author asks himself what motivated the Andersons to “sequester themselves in a gated geritopia?” Blechman goes to visit, and once there he gathers material for this non-fiction book.

The book includes a fascinating history of retirement communities which started in …. answer in one… you got it: Arizona. Retirement communities were rooted in idealism and also, as the author acknowledges, as a way for older Americans to “find community.” While a fair portion of the book concentrates on the appallingly bad, sexually promiscious behaviour of some of the residents of The Villages, there are also interviews, which do not take place in bars, with residents who express the fact that safety, and being able to go out at night, is a huge factor in their decision to move to The Villages:

I don’t feel threatened like I did back in Boston. Back home, I’d be stuck in the house, scared. Here I can go down to the square by myself, listen to the music, see people dancing, go home and I feel like I did something–and it doesn’t cost me a dime.

At one point, the author takes a tour and learns that “The Villages stands for GLC: golf, lifestyle, and convenience [..] everywhere you go is accessible by golf carts.” No doubt the ability to drive a golf cart anywhere appeals to those who are concerned that aging may threaten the renewal of a Driver’s License, but at several points in the book, there’s the definite feeling that driving golf carts removes the threat of the DUI. The term “Disney for adults” crops up more than once. The Villages is owned by the Morse family, and the author says that “from what I can tell, they own the liquor stores and liquor distribution rights, a mortgage company, several banks, many of the restaurants, two giant furniture stores as well as a giant indoor furnishings arcade called ‘The Street of Dreams,’ a real estate company, gold cart dealerships, movie theaters and the local media.” While I don’t care for this artificial construct, is this type of system that weird? Disney is the same–except people don’t live there (some wish they could). There’s a retirement housing complex in my town. It’s owned by some huge corporation. The seniors pay big bucks for these rentals which include maid service, meals and all these activities. I’m sure every lightbulb and all cleaning products are ‘provided’ by the management. No one seems to lift an eyebrow at the ethics of this–after all it’s sort of along the lines of a hotel playbook. Except in this case it’s seniors and long-term residence of more than a few nights. I couldn’t help but think of Better Call Saul….

One of the best parts of the book is a trip to the original development, the humble “decidedly less fancy Village of Orange Blossom Gardens” where “the Villages’ history begins.” One Orange Blossom Village resident notes that the “major difference [is] between the two sides of the highway” that divides his village from the other Village communities is “money.” As The Villages expanded, it became fancier–more amenities, larger houses etc. But then the tendency in America is towards larger, fancier homes.

Andrew Blechman doesn’t seem to like The Villages. I get it: At one point, he says he feels like he’s “on a movie set,” and indeed the impression I get is that it’s like one of those fake tourist towns–you know the ones–where there’s a main street with for the tourists and the ‘real people’ live elsewhere. The sense of the surreal, of this otherworld community is supported by the “The Villages’ own morning show, which is broadcast on Gary Morse’s television station” and then there’s Gary Morse’s local newspaper. The author longs for people his own age, which isn’t too surprising as he’s not the appropriate resident age, but there’s also a sense of disapproval:

While it’s not for me to say seniors shouldn’t enjoy themselves, the reality behind age segregation is another matter. No clever euphemism can hide the fact that these communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.

I would have loved some interviews with people who left (there’s a whiff of the ghosts of former unhappy residents) or just more residents who weren’t Looking For Love In All the Wrong Places. Mr. Midnight (who gets his Viagra via mail order) and other lotharios at Crazy Gringos may have been easy to interview but I would hate to think they are typical residents. They can’t all be geriatric swingers. I would have also been interested in the financial side of things. These amenities are not free; they are mostly included: so how does that impact the cost-of-living? How many residents find that they run out of money and move on?

No doubt we all know what retirement communities are, and perhaps a few of those who read this live in one. While I had no idea that The Villages existed, after reading the book, I understand why many retired people rave about the place. At the same time, I know there’s no way in hell I’d move there:

Next door is the Savannah Center, a performing arts facility which was built to resemble Scarlett O’ Hara’s beloved Tara and which attracts touring Broadway productions. “I just can’t imagine what we don’t have here, ” Mindy remarks. “It seems like we have everything we could possibly need. And it’s so beautiful–like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.

I can’t stand Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Now I’m going to clarify that… saying I would never live in The Villages . … it’s not a moral judgment; it’s more that I am not social and it would be pointless for me to live there; plus the place would drive me nuts. If I want to put a statue in my front garden, I’m going to do it, dammit (the rules are much more relaxed in Orange Blossom Village, which sounds quite charming to be honest.) I’ve driven by an upscale retirement housing ‘village’ which boasts the sign: Your New Friends Are Waiting For You. Yeah… fat chance. The Villages is a playground for retirees, a “Disney for adults,” and that’s great, but the manufactured downtowns would make me feel as if I lived in one of those revolting tourist towns. But I’ll settle with whatever floats your boat (short of illegal, etc):

The Villagers’ perennially favorite pool: a whimsical creation reminiscent of the Flintstones with a water fall masking a hidden cave and a jacuzzi. There was a Tiki bar on one side, and on the other a small karaoke tent with an older DJ wearing a big grin and blasting music loud enough to make me cringe.

Back to the author’s argument that retirement communities are, in reality, regions of “age segregation,” and that “the communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.” These seniors are not paying any taxes that are directed to schools etc. Residents can indulge in endless activities and idiosyncrasy seems to be encouraged. It seems creepy to me to imagine not living near children, and somehow jarring that young people staff the restaurants of the very communities in which they cannot live.

Leisureville is a thought-provoking read, but for me, the interest sprang from attitudes and expectations of the retired, the aging, the old. So I’ll ask this question: when we drive by those drab, lower income retirement communities, assisted living, homes to park the elderly, or whatever name you want to apply to these places, do we still think it’s age-segregation? It’s fundamentally the same thing– except, since these residences are not in their own separate, exclusive county, without the tax issue. Without the gloss and the glamour. Are the residents of these less-desirable, unappealing, spine- shivering places “selfish?” No of course not, and the reason we don’t think that is, because we suspect that, inside those walls, no one is having much fun. So is that what it comes down to…. fun…??? How much ‘fun’ retirees are expected to have? How much ‘fun’ do we think they should have?

Leisureville was published over 10 years ago, but there’s a documentary about The Villages on the way. Can’t wait.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children: Andrew D. Blechman

  1. So fascinating. A topic that enthralls and makes me shudder. I don’t like the idea at all. Sounds artificial and sanitized but I’m sure it has its benefits for the right people. I hope I get to see that documentary.

    • I think it works well for many people. One of the interviewees made the point that the men love the place while the women miss their families. I think that’s a generalization but can’t help but wonder if this is so.

  2. ‘Gated geritopia’ great expression for a hideous idea. When I was a student I worked in old peoples’ homes, but they were for people with dementia or other inabilities to live their own lives.
    Nothing worse than living in an institution, sane or insane.

    • I can’t get my mind around how much people pay for these retirement community apts around here.
      As a friend recently said to me re: retirement communities, “shoot me now.” Of course The Villages sounds top of the line if that’s the type of retirement people want and can actually afford. Just not for me

  3. I’m fascinated by the trailer

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