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Monday, July 14, 2008

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias


Many Baby Boomers, as we draw closer and closer to the magic number that will allow, or maybe require, us to retire from full-time employment, find ourselves at least a little bit tempted to move into one of the hundreds of age-restricted communities that are popping up all over the country. After all, we reason, we have spent a lifetime paying taxes (including school district taxes for decades after the graduation of our last child), commuting to and from work, and tolerating the unruly behavior and noise of all those kids who live next door and down the street. Don’t we deserve to live our last couple of decades in peace and quiet, among people who share our interests and concerns, and away from the noise and clutter of those not as far into life’s journey as we are?

Andrew Blechman became intrigued by the concept of age-restricted communities when two of his neighbors moved from their longtime home in New England to The Villages, a Florida community designed for people wanting to immerse themselves in a lifestyle of leisure activities and relative isolation from the rest of the world. Blechman became so curious, in fact, that he moved in with his old neighbors for a few weeks to live that lifestyle for himself. Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias is largely the product of what he learned from the time he spent there.

Anyone considering residence in a community similar to The Villages would be wise to read Blechman’s book because of his firsthand reporting of what it is like to live in a place almost completely dedicated to boiling life’s experiences down to a few simple pleasures. Golfers and those into arts and crafts seem to love the place, as do those who want to cram in as much drinking and sex into the remainder of their lives as possible. But you have other interests, you say? Well, then in all likelihood you will want to avoid the lifestyle offered by The Villages and other communities like it and opt for a more traditional retirement location.

Do you resent being pandered to or brainwashed? If so, you will probably find the community-controlled newspaper, radio and television outlets that pretend that nothing bad ever happens in places like The Villages to be more than a little ludicrous. Even the “reporters” who are supposedly paid to function as news gatherers eventually come to resent all of the censorship necessary to keep smiles on the faces of community residents.

But more importantly, Blechman points out the important social issues that need to be considered before committing to life in any of America’s “Leisurevilles.” Is it right for retirees to yank their support from the communities whose services they have enjoyed for a lifetime? Are they abandoning their generational obligations by deciding not to serve as readily accessible role models to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Now that they have the luxury of so much free time should they be using some of it to better their communities by working for social or structural changes from there?

Those are just a few of the questions that Blechman asks in his book. There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the issue as to whether or not age-restricted settings like The Villages are a good thing or a bad thing. For some people, these communities offer exactly the lifestyle most suited to their retirement years. For others the very thought of moving into such a community is mind numbing, at best, and horrifying, at worst.

Leisureville moved me one giant step closer to deciding what kind of retirement setting will be best for me and my wife. But I also came away from the book with the understanding that, although age-segregated, gated communities have no appeal to us, they will appeal to many others – and are absolutely perfect for some.

Personally, I am certain that we would be bored in a community where golf, alcohol and casual sex are such prominent parts of the lifestyle that everything else seems secondary. For us it is more important to remain close to family and to enjoy the benefits of living in a diverse community with so much more to offer than golf courses, bars and community centers. I sincerely believe that aging is as much mental as it is physical, and that the mental part is much easier to govern while surrounded by family, a diverse group of fellow citizens and neighbors, museums, university access, and live sports and entertainment choices.

Rated at: 4.0

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