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The Author Speaks

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Andrew D. Blechman sees retirement communities as a form of age segregation.

Q. What do you think attracts them to places like The Villages?

A. Well, Americans are searching for community, and retirement and growing older can be a scary life stage. We live in a society that has a lot of existence angst, feelings of isolation. And part of the problem is that we’re ignoring our elderly.

Q. You point out that in your hometown, something like one half of one percent of the budget was dedicated to programs for the aging ...

A. Yeah, one half of one percent, exactly. Very little. We’re a fiercely youth-centric society, and we don’t take good care of our elders. We marginalize them.

Q. But in retirement communities, residents can be surrounded by people going through the same things they are.

A. Right. It’s a very pleasant existence. And where else are you going to retire today? The average American moves 12 times in a lifetime, so there is no “home.” Where are you supposed to go? In suburban sprawl, you have to drive and park in a huge parking lot just to get a quart of milk, let alone human contact. So developers have filled this gap. What do we, as retirees, do with ourselves? Their answer is a very pleasant lifestyle, a very pleasant community. But—it comes with a societal price tag.

Q. Which is ...?

A. Segregation. I can’t think of any period in history in which segregation was a good thing. Groups of people who are segregated start forgetting the commonalities they share.

A perfect example would be Sun City. Sun City voted down 17 school bond measures in 12 years. Kids were going to school in staggered shifts, and they were often using trailers that doubled as classrooms. The message the older residents there are sending is “We don’t care about your families; we certainly don’t care about your children. We’ve done our share; we don’t want to pay anymore.” We’re programmed as humans to try to help the next generation do better than our generation, and this is kind of a reversal of that. Basically, you have these people seceding from society.

There’s nothing wrong with age-targeted housing, with naturally occurring retirement communities. That makes a lot of sense. But we’re talking about places where children are forbidden—they’re given visitors’ passes that time out like visas. That doesn’t strike me as societally healthy. You’ve got to wonder what will happen to the kids whose schools weren’t funded when they grow older and inherit 10 trillion dollars in debt, as well as a bankrupt Social Security system and Medicaid and Medicare. How generous are they going to feel? If you don’t want to live with the generations that come after you, what message are you sending to them?

Q. But Sun City isn’t the norm. If some portion of retirees wants to live in these age-segregated communities, whom does it hurt?

A. I don’t know, I think these communities are going to grow by leaps and bounds, and in an eye blink they’re going to seem like the most normal way to live.

Q. You don’t think the popularity of these communities will wane as boomers retire?

A. Not at all. There will be tweaking—you might not have giant Villages or Sun Cities. Communities are going to be smaller because they’ll be located closer to cities and they’ll be closer to family. But they’re still going to be age-segregated. You’re still having people who have made a distinct decision not to live near children.

Q. What was most surprising about The Villages?

A. You mean besides music being pumped out of rocks and lampposts? And downtowns that were designed by entertainment specialists that worked for Universal Studios? I guess it was that the place was basically governed by one man. The developer owns the newspaper, the TV station, the radio stations, magazines—they’re basically propaganda organs. And the residents don’t care. They’re doing government by contract.

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