Living in a world of exclusion
'Active adult' communities founded upon values that are anything but neighborly

By Andrew D. Blechman - Jul. 20, 2008
Special for The Republic

"Community values" is one of those buzzwords that is so universal it has lost nearly all meaning. Politicians of every stripe are quick to laud them, and most everyone in the audience will nod and clap, agreeing that community values are indeed good, patriotic and something we should work to strengthen. But few among us actually pause to consider what our community values are or should be.

Today, more and more Americans are coming to embrace a lifestyle defined by one common trait - the exclusion of children and young families. But although segregation is a dubious tenet upon which to found a community, and despite the fact that this premise has remained essentially unexamined, so-called "active adult" developments are rapidly gaining acceptance in American society. The erosion of community values that they represent surely deserves more than a passing nod.

It's true that America is becoming an increasingly confusing place in which to live, let alone grow old. The average American moves 12 times during the course of his or her life, and a majority of us now live in mindless and alienating suburban sprawl, which is antithetical to aging-in-place. Aside from faith-based organizations, a traditional sense of community -"we're in this together" - has become increasingly difficult to find

In my book Leisureville, I describe the successor to Arizona's once-famed Sun City. The Villages of Florida is now the largest retirement community in the world. Nearly twice the size of Manhattan and with a targeted population of 110,000 people, it has more than three-dozen golf courses (and plans for many more); dozens of pools and state-of-the-art recreation centers; two make-believe downtowns where residents can congregate; and a non-threatening Viagra-fueled nightlife for those on the prowl. (The vast majority of Villagers aren't actually old, but rather middle-aged.)

Aside from the canned environment - golden oldies are pumped out of lampposts and faux downtowns are "themed" by entertainment specialists - it's generally an attractive place to retire and play. And after a partial lifetime of hard work and child-rearing, older Americans deserve a place where they aren't marginalized and forgotten, let alone taxed like younger generations, right?

Although many of the subjects in my book often refer to this word - deserve - I'm left unmoved. I'm more concerned with examining the ramifications of this relatively new cultural phenomenon. Societal secession may be a recently legitimized rite of passage, but that doesn't mean that it is either healthy or desirable.

It has become increasingly clear to me that Sun City, the Villages, and thousands of other "voluntary ghettos" around the nation, are neither sustainable nor accountable. Rather, they are a fantasy, the product of a developer's profit-driven concept of "geritopia."

Sustainable communities aren't based on leisure. Living among a community of aging peers and golf courses may be comforting and a lot of fun, but a complex and functioning society demands cooperation between the generations.

No one can live in a bubble, regardless of how pleasant the initial experience may be. As Arizonans may remember, even Biosphere 2 eventually needed oxygen pumped in. Similarly, without new generations and reinvestment, and the constant renewal they bring, it is hard to imagine how these communities will survive, much less prosper over time.

And then there are the rest of us. After defeating 17 school-bond measures in 12 years, de-annexing from the local school system, and all the energy spent evicting "contraband children," Sun Citians can likely forget relying on the goodwill of their neighbors who often share a reciprocal bounty of distrust, anger and apathy. Shown in this light, Sun City's claim to fame - community service - rings rather hollow.

Life in the Villages is similarly premised: Seniors have taken control of their county's political machinery and have already begun closing parks for young families who live outside the gated community. As one Villager proudly told me without a trace of irony, "In the Villages we spend our tax dollars on ourselves."

If the Villages and Sun City cannot be accountable to their neighbors, then why should their neighbors be accountable to them, even when it comes to funding Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security?

After years of leisure, many Sun City residents have little interest in making the world, let alone their own community, a better place. They'd rather glide to the finish, which is why the community is already getting ratty around the edges. Why accept the burden of investing in the long-term future - whether it's children, schools, parks, or anything else that drives us forward from one generation to the next - when there isn't one?

After years of the good life, Sun City's selfish premise has turned inward. The same seniors who voted down 17 school-bond referendums are now dead set against renovating their own recreation centers, which are now mainly used by younger retirees.

Such a mentality leaves Sun City at risk of turning into a necropolis. Communities that don't reinvest in themselves die untimely deaths.

When I asked the president of the homeowners association - Sun City's leader by default -what his plans were to ensure the future of his aging community, he had this to offer: "Damned if I know!"

It comes as little surprise that residents consider actual self-governance via incorporation to be "too expensive."

In today's fractured world, many seniors understandably want to band together. But if Sun City residents, and their brethren around the nation, are concerned about fostering meaningful community values - the kind that will sustain and enrich us all over time - they might reconsider the validity of age-segregation and re-examine their relationships with their more youthful neighbors, before it's too late.

Many of the Sun City residents and Villagers I interviewed admitted that deep down something about age-segregation sticks in their gut. They should trust their instincts. We humans have lived in multi-generational communities in one form or another for tens of thousands of years. Age segregation is 50 years old. When it comes to fostering a sustainable and accountable future, whose intuition would you rather trust: A developer's or that of the human race?

Andrew D. Blechman is the author of "Leisureville - Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias."