When journalist Andrew D. Blechman learned that his neighbors, Dave and Betsy Anderson, were moving from their long-time home in New England to an elaborate retirement community in Florida, he was surprised.
“I had assumed the Andersons were neighborhood lifers,” Blechman writes in his new book, Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias, published this month. “Why would they want to go?”
His question, of course, goes far beyond the Andersons. More than 68,000 people live in The Villages—the retirement community in Sumter County, Fla., that attracted Blechman’s neighbors—and it is only one of many “active adult” retirement communities throughout the nation. Why does anybody move to these age-segregated places?
“Retirement is a relatively new phenomenon,” writes Blechman, 39. “For thousands of years, with a few exceptions, humans simply worked until they couldn’t.”
But America’s growing prosperity in the 20th century parlayed “retirement” into its own life stage. Youngstown, the nation’s first planned retirement community, was built in 1954 just outside Phoenix, Ariz. Its developer, Benjamin Schleifer, dreamed of a place where older adults could age with dignity and community; the city was host to the very first chapter of AARP.
The man who really created the retirement community we know today was Del Webb, a real estate developer who in 1960 founded the community of Sun City, an unincorporated town near Phoenix. A cluster of houses around a shopping center, recreation facility and golf course, Sun City drew 100,000 people in its opening weekend, and Webb’s company has since opened more than 50 other active adult retirement communities.
Larger than any of these is The Villages, with more than 26,000 acres. Thousands of residents move in each year, and if current sales rates continue, it could have 105,000 inhabitants by 2012. It is divided into multiple subcommunities that share two manufactured “downtown” areas, several pools and recreation centers, and 28 golf courses. It has its own newspaper, magazine, TV station and radio station. Residents—who must be at least 55 to purchase a home—travel around the community on golf carts. Visits from children are limited to a total of 30 days per year.
Blechman’s month-long visit to The Villages—along with briefer visits to other retirement communities and conferences—forms the basis for Leisureville. Part investigative journalism, part humor and part social critique, the book explores the attraction of these communities, what it’s really like behind the gated walls (it’s not all golf games and bridge clubs; the retirees Blechman meets—such as itinerant ladies’ man “Mr. Midnight”—can be surprisingly debauched), and what the phenomenon means for America at large.
Blechman is no ideologue. He is quick to point out the perceived faults of age-segregated communities, but he’s not blind to their appeal, either. He spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about his discoveries and perspective. Read our Q&A with Blechman below, or check out an excerpt from Leisureville about his first day in The Villages. Then visit our Sound Off page to share your thoughts on age-segregated retirement communities.
Q. Beginning your adventure, did retirement communities strike you as a bad idea?
A. Not really. I was more shocked that a place like this existed, and I wanted to understand it—what it looked like, who would be attracted to it and why. It concerns me that 12 million Americans—and this is a conservative estimate—will be seceding from society to live in communities where children aren’t allowed. And we’re not talking about elderly people—that’s the important thing to keep in mind. We’re talking about people who are in the prime of their lives—active adults.