Andrew D. Blechman
Americans have retired in droves to age-restricted communities ever
since six model homes opened in Sun City, Arizona, in 1960
-- the first such development in the world. Today, as Sun
City plans a 50th anniversary celebration for its more than
40,000 inhabitants, some 1,500 "leisure retirement
communities" have become a way of life for nearly 12
While age-restricted communities tend to cluster in sunny
states, they're proliferating everywhere. You may be
surprised to learn that 60% of new retirement communities
are being built in the North. Massachusetts, where I live,
contains 150, with about 200 more proposed.
The largest age-restricted (and gated) retirement community
in the world is The Villages in central Florida.
One-and-one-half times the square mileage of Manhattan and
currently housing 70,000, this flock of "villages" lured
former neighbors of mine, the Andersons, several years ago.
In a one-month stay at The Villages, two weeks of which
were spent at their new home, I did my preliminary research
for Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement
Utopias, a study of retirement communities around the
country. My goal: To understand the appeal of a unique way
of living that has been luring our elders away.
INDEPENDENCE AND COMMUNITY
The most prominent type of retirement community, and the
one I studied for my book, focuses on recreation. The
amenities are plentiful, with little waiting for a tennis
court or tee time... and a constant influx of new residents
that encourages bonding and creates instant community.
Grown children feel relieved that Mom and Dad are busy and
happy. Some communities contain continuing-care facilities
for residents who become unable to care for themselves.
While these communities vary widely, they share attributes
that say "paradise" to some -- and "purgatory" to others.
A CERTAIN AGE
Designed for those who prefer a child-free environment,
retirement communities address the needs and desires of the
older set. Minimum age requirements -- usually age 55 --
are strictly enforced. At least one member of each
household must be the minimum age or older. (Filling the
house with unrelated roommates is not allowed.) Guests,
including relatives, under age 18 or 19 may visit for only
a predetermined number of days per year.
Pros: Residents relish the novelty of having their needs
treated as a top priority. A child-free environment ensures
more peace and quiet than ordinary neighborhoods provide.
Seniors feel safe surrounded by age peers.
Cons: Grandchildren's visits are limited. They can never
move in, whatever the family situation. People who enjoy
mingling with others of all types and ages might find the
setting too limiting.
RECREATION 24/7, INCLUDING SEX
Golf, tennis, swimming, Bingo, dances and hobby groups
dominate daily activities in leisure-oriented communities.
An active singles scene includes the never married, the
divorced, the previously widowed and those widowed after
moving in. A relaxed social atmosphere with no work
responsibilities tends to encourage sexual freedom. I have
observed that a good number of older gentlemen, and some
women, regularly seek and find sex partners.
Pros: Life can be all play -- a common retirement fantasy.
Tennis courts, swimming pools and gyms aren't overrun by
the young. Recreational facilities are designed for
less-than-perfect eyesight and physiques.
Cons: People who are less focused on sports and hobbies may
feel alienated, as may retirees who derive significant
pleasure from high culture -- opera, theater, classical
music, a superb public library. Widows and widowers who
haven't dated in 50 years and who dismiss the use of
condoms as solely for contraception are unaware that
sexually transmitted infections, including herpes, syphilis
and AIDS, have infiltrated the senior singles scene.
NEW CONSTRUCTION, LOTS OF RULES
Many retirement communities, being built in ever-increasing
numbers, boast that everything is new. The older ones were
built just as fast and not all that well.
Also, home owners must respect many rules ("deed
Examples: Exterior paint colors and even the height of
shrubs may be prescribed... pets limited to two... lawn
ornaments and window air conditioners banned.
Pros: Modern amenities, including plenty of bathrooms and
closets. Homes designed with few stairs and universal
Deed restrictions ensure that neighborhoods remain clean
and neat. Many home owners consider mandatory conformity a
small price to pay for knowing that they'll never see their
neighbors' car on blocks, swing sets in the yard or gnomes
on the lawn.
Cons: Slapdash construction, including modern versions of
old designs built with today's questionable workmanship,
often lacks charm. Each community's success hinges on
perpetual investment and care by the managing owner. You
may never know whether the developer is about to declare
bankruptcy, as some have, leaving behind partially
completed, thinly populated "communities" with houses that
will probably become increasingly difficult to sell.
The communal areas of most recreational retirement
communities -- the golf courses, the downtown, the streets
-- as well as the empty lots and unsold houses are owned by
their builders (or whomever the builders sell them to).
Special zoning arrangements (these communities bring in
lots of tax revenue for local jurisdictions) may permit
community rules to sidestep state and county laws in many
aspects of life.
Pros: Many residents, delighted with their low per-home
property taxes, feel confident that the owners have a
personal stake in meeting community needs.
Cons: Residents trade the ballot box for the suggestion
box. Residents with a gripe plead their cases before a
corporate board, not elected officials. Don't look in the
local paper or at public meetings for discussions of
Expect to live under a form of "taxation without
representation." Through steadily increasing maintenance
fees, the owners can charge residents for, say, new golf
courses and recreation centers.
ADVICE FOR POTENTIAL BUYERS
If age-restricted retirement community living attracts you,
visit several, staying for a while if you can arrange it. I
learned far more during my four weeks with the Andersons
than any official tour could have shown.
Generally, these communities have wonderful recreational
amenities. But is the intellectual spark bright enough for
you? Can you find a group that reads the kinds of books you
like? Other questions to consider...
Where do you want to be in 20 years? How would you feel
about being far from your family and old friends later in
Can you imagine aging happily there? Might you "age in
place" instead, perhaps having your current home
Will your house purchase be a good investment, bringing
decent value if you sell?