Fall
 2008

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A Closer Look at Senior Retirement Communities

Leisureville:
Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias

by Andrew D. Blechman

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008


A Place Called Canterbury:
Tales of the New Old Age in America
by Dudley Clendinen
Viking Adult, 2008


Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

Two years ago, when Itineraries first published an issue whose focus was community, we reviewed the “how to” manuals for cohousing development, and stories written by pioneers at the forefront of the cohousing movement. Although cohousing sparked interest among our readers as a seemingly unique phenomenon, private real estate developers have been building and touting the charms of senior retirement communities for many decades, particularly in the warmer climes of southern Florida, southern California, Arizona, and Texas. Who could have predicted that this second theme edition of Itineraries would coincide with publication of two new books on these kinds of communities?

Bleckman and Clendinen, reporters previously published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, update us on this important movement within our society. Both authors delve into the customs and lifestyles of seniors living in age-specific environments. Andrew Blechman (Leisureville) focuses on The Villages in Central Florida, a huge resort-like age-restricted community of new homes to which his New England neighbor of many years suddenly retired. Dudley Clendinen (A Place Called Canterbury) examines an older group of retirees (average age 86) in a geriatric apartment building on Tampa Bay, offering full services and a nursing wing. Here his mother reluctantly went to live out her final days.


Leisureville should be required reading for any “young” retiree tempted to leave their home of many years for the promise of a life-time of resort living without the civic responsibilities associated with life in most communities. Bleckman decided to research the growing phenomenon after two very civic-minded residents of his small New England town succumbed to the promise of life in a type of “Disneyland” where all is positive and elders are entitled to a life without responsibility. While the author focused on The Villages in Central Florida, his research also took him into Arizona and Del Webb (one of the titans of senior real estate development) territory.

Leisureville’s report on these utopian retirement communities contains major surprises not readily apparent when one is considering a move into such a community. Blechman devotes a whole chapter to governance. The Villages is a privately owned enterprise, not an incorporated city or village. The owner maintains control and has the ability to back out of the enterprise at any time:

…The Villages, despite the fact that it spans three counties, is a privately held business situated on unincorporated land. It’s an exceedingly Byzantine enterprise…with an alphabet soup of legalisms. Its amorphous complexity obscures the fact that Gary Morse owns much of the community and exercises enormous political control over it.

By choosing to live under the Morse family’s private regime, Villagers have voluntarily relinquished many of their civil liberties. In exchange for unlimited leisure and recreation, they traded the ballot box for the suggestion box.

The most frightening claim in Blechman’s report is the fact that there are no long-term plans for financing upkeep of the infrastructure of the community, located on unincorporated land. What happens when the infrastructure wears out and the roads and utility grid need repair? Even worse, what happens when the residents of these age-restricted places get too old for their golf carts and need medical facilities — and walkers?

While Blechman’s most important contribution is his clear message about governance and financing of important services, his description of the residents (and one’s potential neighbors} is absolutely brutal. There is little to admire in the characters he came to know as part of his research. The author portrays them as bigoted, self-centered, and hedonistic. In their focus on swimming pools, alcohol, craft classes, and golf, they accept no responsibility for the community’s greater good. Having visited a couple of such communities (although not the Villages) this reviewer is tempted to believe that Blechman’s characters may be typical. However, not all residents are as bad as his characterizations. And his failure to do more than note this possibility detracts from the credibility of Leisureville. The reader is left wondering if Blechman just failed to connect with a true cross-section of residents.


Dudley Clendinen’s A Place Called Canterbury is a more satisfying book because it reflects on the courage and ingenuity of its characters as as they deal with the last stage of life. It is a book for the caretakers of aging parents and for those of us preparing to face the winter season of our own lives. Caretakers will identify with the author’s challenges, and the rest of us can find inspiration for facing our own fears and realities.

 
 

In their home on Tampa’s swank Bayshore Boulevard, Canterbury Tower’s colorful, well-heeled residents are buffered from some, but not all, of the intrusions that aging brings.

TampaBay.com

It is no coincidence that the title refers to the classic Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Years may have passed since we sat in literature class and read “The Prior’s Tale,” but we may still remember his story. So too will readers remember the stories of these modern-day pilgrims — the tales of our own parents and the tales of our future selves.

Canterbury, like other nonprofit life-care facilities, was designed to serve the middle class at a price that they could afford when they entered and that would not impoverish them in their final days.

“The equation on which life-care facilities are based is an actuarial bet — a gamble. It doesn’t matter at what age over sixty-two a person wants to enter, but new residents have to be able to walk through the front doors on their own power. No wheelchairs. They have to have enough money to afford the sizeable down payment due when they come in, and enough income for the fee they contract to pay each month. The down payment buys them no equity so if they die soon, they lose. But if they live long, they win, especially if they end up in the nursing wing, because the nursing care costs no more — except for the extra meals, pills and nursing supplies — than the monthly apartment fee.”

Clendinen’s iron-willed, southern belle mother went to this life-care facility in 1994 when she could no longer live in the home she had shared with her beloved husband as they raised their children. In 1998, she suffered a stroke and was moved into the nursing wing. During those years, Clendinen spent so much time there that the Canterbury residents, especially his mother’s friends, trusted him and shared their aches, pains, worries, stresses, life stories, and aspirations.

He finds a quiet dignity in those stories and has made them come to life in A Place Called Canterbury. They form the backdrop for his account of caring for his mother, the story of her physical decline, and ultimately, of her physical death. Caretakers of aging parents will identify with many of Clendinen’s moments of truth — such as the moment he realized that his mother could no longer use the toilet by herself:

“It is our ability to live and function at a personal remove from others, able to tend to our own private needs, that gives us the sense of being sovereign in our own space. Learning the toilet is perhaps the first grown-up ability we gain as children, and the last we relinquish to age. I was sitting with my mother—my elegant, strong-willed, dignified mother—in the week after she woke from the coma of her first stroke. We were in a private hospital room, talking carefully, quietly, when suddenly she stopped.

“Darling, I need you to help me to the bathroom, ”she said.

Uh-oh.

“Let me call a nurse,” I answered. The bathroom was ten feet away. It might as well have been a mile.

 Many readers of Itineraries find satisfaction, deep peace, and meaning by deliberately facing the autumn of our lives. We have come to understand it as a time unlike youth, and unique unto itself. It may be more difficult, however, to look winter squarely in the face. — as a season of constraints, bare trees, frozen ground, and death. A Place Called Canterbury offers a fertile ground for facing that which we are all tempted to deny. The residents come to life in its pages, showing courage and nobility in the face of Alzheimer’s, dementia, strokes, and saying goodbye to a spouse of 50+ years. Their ability to maintain a sense of dignity and integrity until the end inspires the reader to do likewise. These new Canterbury tales give us a way to begin thinking about the journey into life’s winter.