By John Howells, author of Where to Retire.
When my wife and I began researching retirement communities, some 20 years ago, we were somewhat puzzled by the concept of age-restricted communities. Since we had always lived in mixed-generation neighborhoods, we quite frankly could not understand why retirees would voluntarily segregate themselves into neighborhoods of same-age neighbors.
Recalling our days of raising a family in a traditional suburban neighborhood, we fondly recalled how we enjoyed socializing with our mixed-generation neighbors. Summer block celebrations, backyard barbecues, bridge and poker parties. Also Christmas, New Years, Fourth of July, and a host of other social events were neighborhood celebrations. When new families with children moved in, we quickly made them welcome and have maintained friendships with some for decades afterward.
Now, why in the world would retirees shun this pleasant lifestyle? Obviously, the growing popularity of age segregation was a phenomena we needed to address if we were to publish a book on retirement. Therefore, as we began traveling the country doing research for our first book, Retirement Choices (now long out of print), we paid special attention when researching age-restricted communities.
Our first interviews were at Del Webb’s Sun City, in the Phoenix area. Established some 20 years previously (now 40 years ago), Sun City was in full bloom of development. We were taken by the well-designed homes, the plethora of leisure-time activities, the thoughtful convenience of the community shopping.
Golf courses, hobby and entertainment centers, swimming pools, organized social activities of all descriptions specially designed to keep residents entertained and occupied for a lifetime of retirement.
Even the desert landscaping was designed to require as little maintenance as possible, and, as I recall, Sun City helped with maintenance to provide even more leisure time for residents.
The question we needed to answer: Can leisure-time goodies compensate or substitute for those old-fashioned, family-friendly neighborhoods we grew up in? We were determined to get both sides of the story.
One of our first interviews was with a couple from Dayton, Ohio. We were lucky to meet them, because when they moved from Dayton, they originally settled in a mixed-ages neighborhood in Scottsdale, one of the nicer suburbs of Phoenix.
They bought a lovely house with a swimming pool and barbecue entertainment area in the backyard. They pictured a continuation of their mixed-generation environment of suburban Dayton. However, the couple lived in their new home for just two years before selling out at a loss to purchase a similar place in Sun City. “Why?” we asked. “Why in the world did you trade Scottsdale for Sun City?” The reply surprised us: “Because we were lonely!”
The couple went on to explain that more than half of their immediate neighbors in Scottsdale were families with children. That was something they were used to back in Dayton. No problem. Yet when they wanted to play golf or go fishing, their younger neighbors worked during the day, and couldn’t participate. Instead of joining them for an evening concert, a play, or a ballgame, their younger neighbors had to attend PTA meetings or would rather relax in front of the television after a hard day’s work.
When the newcomers invited their neighbors for a weekend barbecue and a few drinks in the backyard, their younger friends had Cub Scout meetings, or arrangements to be with friends their own age, who also had children. They soon realized that so-called mixed-age developments might have mixed ages, but they tend to segregate into two groups anyway: those with children and those without children.
But what about the older residents in the development? The same age group as our couple? Surely they had similar interests? No doubt they did, but most of them already had their golf foursomes, and weren’t in the habit of inviting strangers for dinner or an evening of bridge. Their same-age neighbors who lived down the street might give the newcomers an occasional friendly wave, but that was about it.
People generally aren’t inclined go out of their way to invite perfect strangers for dinner, to play golf, or to join them for an evening of bridge. Anyone who moves into a new neighborhood—in a new city, where they have no acquaintances—will tell you it isn’t easy to be “those people who moved into the house down the street.”
Socially, you have to start from scratch to make friends. The couple we were interviewing exclaimed: “But it’s different here in Sun City. We have more friends here than ever before in our life!” They explained that as the movers were unloading their furniture, a social director was standing there with a clipboard in her hand. She inquired about the newcomers’ hobbies, sports, and recreational and political preferences, creating a social profile. As soon as the newcomers were settled in, the social director introduced them to kindred spirits who were also newcomers to the community.
Their first weekend in Sun City saw them on the golf course with another couple and they received an invitation to join a bridge club, as well as joining ballroom dance classes at the community center.
This highly popular concept of age-restricted and socially organized communities have changed the way many people view retirement. A prearranged lifestyle particularly suits those moving in from another area, who have no acquaintances and who don’t want to waste time and energy trying to develop friends. With an organized community, it’s all right there, in one package. You are buying a lifestyle, not just a house.
You’ll discover other advantages to living in an restricted-age development. One is that life is more tranquil without gangs of kids riding bikes, playing boom boxes, and knocking baseballs through your living room window. You’ll also enjoy a lower crime rate. That’s because burglaries, vandalism, and theft usually occur in direct proportion to the number of teenagers in the community. Residents of over-50 developments report secure feelings about their neighborhood.
During our frequent research trips and interviewing retirees, we quickly overcame our impression that same-generation communities might be dreary. We found exactly the opposite. Yet many people, especially those under the age of 50, have misconceptions about this lifestyle.
Recently, I read a newspaper interview with Andrew D. Blechman, author of a book about over-50 communities, titled "Leisureville." Blechman expresses a rather negative view of restricted age communities. Of course, he writes from the perspective of a 39-year-old—presumably with children—who doesn’t understand why retired people would want to segregate themselves. (Not realizing they are automatically segregated anyway.)
Blechman’s research consisted of a month visiting The Villages (a Florida retirement community), and visits to other developments such as Sun City, Arizona. Among his misconceptions, is the notion that these developments are for low-income couples. In the interview, when describing age-restricted communities, he said: “It's cheaper to live there. All the businesses are trying to tailor their prices to people who want to spend less money.” I really don’t think he is describing the restricted age communities my wife and I have investigated. Most of them feature beautiful golf courses with fancy clubhouses, Olympic swimming pools, championship tennis courts, fitness trails and nature park landscaping. They are for property owners who’ve always lived in nice neighborhoods, and can now afford to retire in an even higher-class environment.
The author of “Leisureville” also harbors the puzzling belief that residents of age-restricted communities don’t care about upkeep and maintenance of their property. He says: “When you have a community made up exclusively of people on fixed incomes, they're not really interested in reinvesting for the next group of retirees. So they [their homes, not the people] get ratty around the edges. Things don't get renovated, they fall into disrepair, and it's likely that they'll become necropolises." It’s possible that the author visited the original Sun City development, with homes built 40 years ago. They were inexpensive at that time, and today look no different from ordinary residential developments built in that era.
But with today’s spiffy developments (and corresponding prices), I simply cannot imagine retirees allowing their homes to get “ratty around the edges” any more than if they lived in a mixed generation neighborhood. Does retirement infer a lack of pride about homes and surroundings?
Another complaint from the author: He bemoans the fact that older people who live in adult-only subdivisions tend to reject bond issues for increased school taxes. As if retirees in non-restricted neighborhoods are eager to vote for any tax increases -- whether for schools, libraries, or whatever good cause. That is unfortunate, but it’s universal. It has nothing to do with age-restricted or gated communities. My wife and I happen to live in a traditional mixed-generation town on the California coast. Because property values of over-priced homes have pushed homes into very high tax rates, all bond measures, for whatever purpose, have great difficulty in passing. In fact, our public library is on the verge of closing, and our sewer system is on the verge of failure. You can’t argue that has anything to do with community restrictions on age. This is just human nature.
The final misconception in the interview is the idea that age-restricted communities “. . . are being built for people to commute to work, smaller and closer to urban areas, so they'll be able to come home at night to basically a child-free resort." The fact is: Today’s generation of retirees are retiring earlier than ever before in history, with more income, and with large cash-ins of home equity. They can afford to upgrade their lifestyles with the amenities of age-restricted communities. Those who are in the 55 to 60 age bracket, who are still working, will not likely be on the job too much longer. So let’s not fault them for wanting want to take advantage of the recreational and social opportunities of an over-55 development during their last years in the workplace. Furthermore, I question whether these communities are “smaller and closer to urban areas.”
Furthermore, my observation is that most developments are being located far away from urban settings. They are springing up way out in the countryside where quality land is affordable. This helps keep down costs, so new homes can be priced to sell. My conclusion is that age-restricted and gated communities are able to offer an enviable lifestyle to folks who choose to sell their long established homes and begin anew in a different part of the state or in a more desirable part of the country.
John Howells is a well-known author of a dozen "where to retire" books, both for the United States and for retiring in foreign countries. His book, Where to Retire, covers the most popular retirement locations in the United States. He also has a series of regional books on retirement, the latest being: Choose the Pacific Northwest for Retirement.