Author sees social costs of
Wed Jul 9, 2008
By Lisa Von Ahn
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Most people see retirement communities as places where older people can keep busy while feeling safe, but a 39-year-old author says these "geritopias" have serious consequences for the rest of society.
In his new book "Leisureville," Andrew D. Blechman explores this issue, which piqued his interest when his neighbors decided to move to the world's largest gated community for the 55-and-older set.
Blechman, who has a young daughter, wondered why the couple was leaving a charming town in rural Massachusetts for a place where children can visit for no more than 30 days a year. But he later found that the "active adult" sector had become the fastest-growing part of the U.S. housing market.
During his own one-month stay at his former neighbors' new home in central Florida's The Villages, Blechman threw himself into the lifestyle of golf carts, a myriad of social activities, and bars where last call is at 9:45 p.m.
The author, whose previous book was about pigeons, says he enjoyed himself sometimes, but was disturbed by the insularity of such developments and their influence on local governments.
He spoke to Reuters about segregated living and the future of retirement communities.
Q: You seem to have strong feelings about age segregation.
A: "When you segregate people, they forget what they have in common and start worrying about their own needs only. For me the canary in the coal mine was when Sun City (a large Arizona retirement community) defeated 17 school bond measures. The kids were going to school in staggered shifts and using trailers doubling as classrooms.
"What's the message? They're saying: 'We don't care about your kids. In fact, we don't want to have anything to do with them, even though we live across the street.' That worries me, and I think it should worry other people as well.
"This is nothing less than a revolution in our society. Twelve million people in the next decade or so are going to be living like this. And we're talking age 55 and older; we're not talking old people."
Q: Did you encounter people who could no longer afford to live in these communities?
A: "No, it's cheaper to live there. All the businesses are trying to tailor their prices to people who want to spend less money. And a lot of (residents) paid cash for their houses."
Q: What do you think is the future of these retirement communities?
A: "These places don't age well. When you have a community made up exclusively of people on fixed incomes, they're not really interested in reinvesting for the next group of retirees. So they get ratty around the edges. Things don't get renovated, they fall into disrepair, and it's likely that they'll become necropolises."
Q: What about in terms of the number of communities?
A: "They're going to grow and grow and grow. My concern is that this will be the natural default for people choosing not to age in place."
Q: How many people will be able to afford to be retired for as much as a third of their lives?
A: "The new (communities) are being built for people to commute to work, smaller and closer to urban areas, so they'll be able to come home at night to basically a child-free resort."
Q: How do you picture yourself as a retiree?
A: "(A Villages resident) said something interesting to me: 'I know what it's like to be young. You don't know what it's like to be old.' But I love being in an authentic community. I love being around children. I love being around my older neighbors. I just can't imagine any other way."