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Golden Years

Andrew Blechman Checks in On What's Really Going Down in Retirement Communities

Deanna Staffo

By Adrienne Martini | Posted 7/2/2008

In Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias (Atlantic Monthly Press), writer Andrew D. Blechman goes where few under the age of 50 have dared go when he probes at the smelly underbellies of America's age-restricted retirement communities. Right about now, you're thinking that there is no way these idyllic, green, and tidy neighborhoods could have anything resembling a smelly underbelly. Brother, you'd be wrong. There is plenty that stinks in these Sun Belt Pleasantvilles. Oddly, very few people--reporters, especially--notice. Fewer still actually care.

Blechman's greatest strength might be his ability not only to make you enjoy reading about the seemingly banal--his first book was about pigeons--but he also makes you think about it. That is one of those clichés that reviewers frequently use, but it doesn't make it any less true.

Some other truths: Given our ever-increasing life spans, we'll spend up to one-third of our lives "retired." By 2014, thanks to the baby boomers, there will be 85 million retirees. On average, an adult will move a dozen times, which leads to a sense of rootlessness that makes it easier to move wherever the weather is clement and the land is cheap.

Also true is that our social contracts were broken somewhere along the way because of this lack of a community spirit. Gone are the structures for aging-in-place, like sidewalks and higher-density neighborhoods, which have been replaced by individual air-conditioned islands that are divorced from what's around them. America as a whole doesn't know what to do with older people, nor do older people know how to handle the young because they are no longer forced to get along.

In Leisureville, Blechman deftly explores the Villages, a retirement community in Florida, and even-handedly uses what he learns to probe the meat of the issue. In the Villages, life is frictionless. Kids can visit but can't stay. There are shopping centers, bars, and doctors all within a golf cart's drive. The developer, Gary Morse, controls everything: the newspaper, the security force, the condition of public areas, the height of your lawn. "I feel as if I'm on a movie set," Blechman writes, "which strikes me as an uncomfortable place to live."

He is the only one who is uncomfortable. The Villagers seem thrilled with their new lives and what helps make Leisureville compulsively readable are the Villages' rich characters, like Tommy, a 73-year-old on the prowl: "[He] tells me that at The Villages he has slept with women as young as nineteen. He points out an apple-cheeked waitress with a cute blond bob, balancing a tray of cocktails on her shoulder. `I had her. I did her on the kitchen table. It was great. They're all great.'"

Channeling his inner Hunter S. Thompson, Blechman smokes dope with retirees and bunks for a few days with Mr. Midnight, who is continuously (and successfully) on the make. Some moments sing in the writer's hands, like the vignette of Blechman playing bingo, which he makes sound like a tactical feat similar to invading Russia. Some are less engagingly written, like Blechman's search for retired lesbians in the Villages or his interviews with the Villages' lone transsexual.

Mostly, the prose is secondary to the ideas. Blechman digs deep into the political wrangling that lets exist places like the Villages, a community of 100,000 in rural Florida that pays few school or municipal taxes yet expects the full menu of county services like ambulances and road maintenance. Slowly, this development is draining the aquifers that it sits on, opening up sinkholes. Still, the residents don't appear to care, as long as they get a tee time.

Ultimately, Blechman picks at the heart of the problem, asking what do you owe your community and what does your community owe you? The biggest letdown of this book is that the author never does find a satisfying answer for this question and continuously tries to appease all parties. Yes, he agrees, my generation has let the older generations down. Yes, he appeases, the greatest generation is being selfish and shortsighted. His only real ire is directed at the developers of these communities and the laws that enable them. Even then, his anger is tepid, watered down by his jump cuts to scenes of happy retirees.

Blechman keeps fighting the belief that it seems wrong to begrudge our elders such happiness at the end of their lives. Why bring up such hard questions when older folks are so happy? Like Betsy, who "described The Villages' accommodations for the terminally ill . . . `The rooms overlook a golf course!' she said. `The Villages has even made dying a little more pleasant!'" How can anyone with a heart argue with that sentiment?

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