Soundings

Christopher Clausen
“You’ll Never Be Alone”
America’s strange new retirement communities
Spring 2010

As anyone knows who spends time in the sunshine latitudes of contemporary America, gated “55-plus communities” have been spreading faster than kudzu ever since the oldest cohort of baby boomers felt the first twinges of arthritis. The oddly age-specific phrase signifies that the developments in question are designed for the needs of the (relatively affluent) retired. Typically, at least one resident of each unit must be at least 55 years old, and no permanent resident can be a minor. Why 55 became the canonical age rather than 50 or 60 is hard to say, but the figure is now so deeply ingrained that the vast Del Webb chain uses the variation “55 or better” in all its advertising.

Now that I’m a whole decade better than 55, my wife and I recently drove more than 2,000 miles touring such properties in the Southeast. Our original goal was simply to visit friends from Indiana who had decided to spend the rest of their days in The Villages, a retirement empire that stretches halfway across the flatlands of north central Florida. That particular realm of gold, feelingly described by Andrew Blechman in Leisureville, seemed too unreal to appeal to us—an endless sprawl of “town centers,” complete with ethnic themes and fake histories, around which you can observe hundreds of senior citizens tooling along on golf carts, day and night.

Florida sunshine, however, promised such a sublime change from the gray Northeast that it inspired an inspection tour of other, less grandiose, communities. Over the course of a few months, we visited half a dozen such places on the outskirts of Florida cities, beside Georgia lakes, or in verdant mountains. One hugged the bank of a South Carolina river and had just built an enormous shed for its residents’ boats. All had lavish recreational facilities and activities directors who offered daily classes in how to use them. As these places repeatedly emphasize, they are for “active adults” and carefully avoid any resemblance to nursing homes. The whole experience boiled down to one basic appeal, summarized by the horrifying promise we encountered again and again: “You’ll never be alone.” Or, as one resident enthused, “It’s like being back in high school!”

A succession of charismatic women in their twenties named Cyndi, Brandy, Misty, and Tara—I am not making the names up—led us through the neighborhoods, stopping every few minutes to talk animatedly with some resident who had succumbed to the same treatment six months or a year ago. Each a native of her territory, they were all the sort of fiddle-dee-dee sex bombs who transition effortlessly from high school cheerleading to selling middle managers from Milwaukee on top-of-the-line retirement homes while still keeping the wives charmed. Following them around was such a mindless pleasure that it was surprising to discover now and then that their grasp of figures was everything a sales manager could wish.

My wife, with the inbred politeness of a native Virginian, drove herself crazy trying to keep up with Brandy or Misty’s relentless extroversion and invariably conveyed the misleading impression that she loved everything she saw, whether it was a three-room condo or a replica of Mount Vernon in modern materials. Meanwhile, the job of asking about construction, bylaws, monthly fees, and whether two people who never played golf would still be paying for the upkeep on a championship course fell to me. Only once did I come up with a question that had apparently never been asked. Most of the residences, no matter how small, had rooms with glass doors referred to as libraries. When I asked Cyndi or Tara whether built-in bookshelves were available as an option, she seemed utterly baffled. “Why,” she wondered aloud, “would you want bookshelves in the library?”

With or without shelves, the outcome was always the same. Once we were back in the privacy of our accommodations, my wife fumed that she would rather die of rabies than live in something made out of Hardy Board, and it would be my duty to tell Misty or Cyndi that if it were up to me, we’d move here tomorrow, but unfortunately these houses reminded my wife of orange crates, or slightly more tactful words to that effect.

So in the end, little came of our 55-or-better tour, apart from the memory of following Quebec license plates up and down Interstate 95. Part of the reason was that these communities are designed for exceptionally outgoing people who love group activities, set a low value on privacy, and don’t mind living in a mass-produced structure that is rarely built to outlast its owners by much. Another source of our paralysis is still more difficult to overcome because it seems to involve an abiding law of human nature, which is that as many men grow older, they become less tolerant of cold weather, while many women become less tolerant of heat. No retirement community I know of, from Maine to Miami, has found a way to deal with that dirty trick evolution can play on even the most gregarious couples.

Christopher Clausen is the author of Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America.

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