The Tragedy of Modern Retirement Communities

When America's first "active" retirement communities opened, average life expectancy was 69.7. Now it's 78.7

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When Sun City, the first 55-plus retirement community, opened 52 years ago, average life expectancy for Americans was 69.7. It seemed like the perfect spot to live out the last 10 or 15 years of your life. They’d be golden years indeed, colored by sunny days and the carefree lifestyle of age-segregated developments: no traffic, no kids, no nonsense. Just heated pools and exercise classes and nights full of Mah Jong and bridge. Amid cookie cutter homes, retirement communities promised companionship.

But what happens now that the average life expectancy is 78.7, and those original residents are still there, 20 or even 30 years later, having outlived their spouses and many of their friends? That’s the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Sari Gilman called Kings Point, the name of the Floridian retirement community in which her own grandmother lived for 30 years.

The physical structure of the retirement community model as pictured in Kings Point, which tends to include age-segregated housing facilities, is at best unsustainable (two-story condos were built without elevators, a design flaw that had to be fixed at great expense as the residents aged). At worst, it’s an architecture of endemic loneliness. We watch as the four women and one man who are the subjects of Gilman’s film experience the kind of isolation that these developments promised to eradicate.

"You can’t really make friends at this age," says the white-haired Molley (who wouldn’t give her age) in the film. She, like most Kings Point residents, moved there from New York with her husband, whom she outlived. "Acquaintances, yes, and good acquaintances. But friends? No. They’re just not here anymore."

The problem as Gilman sees it lies in both the concept—the separating of senior citizens from the larger world—and the culture of retirement communities. There is back-stabbing competitiveness when hundreds of widows vie for the few single men. Social lives depend on good health, as if heart disease or osteoporosis were contagious.

Gilman finds fault in the way these communities are marketed, with emphasis on the sporting, silver-haired set, seemingly unhampered by the reality of aging. They reflect our national obsession with self-reliance, pitting our need for independence against our need for community.

"The more emphasis that people place on being active and independent—which are universal values, we all want that—the harder it is for people to come to terms with the inevitability of not being able to be active and independent," Gilman says.

Of course, there are alternatives to active adult retirement communities. Assisted living; continuing care retirement communities, which have built-in medical facilities; and the most abhorred and feared of housing situations, nursing homes, are all options, if you have the money or the patience for the Medicaid paperwork. More recently, a handful of inter-generational retirement communities, such at Hillcrest Village in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which integrate young families and even include elementary schools, have opened in the U.S.

But even those models, with the exception of inter-generational housing, don't address the national crisis in senior living, the tainted legacy of age-segregated housing that is a $51 billion industry. We suffer from a severe lack of foresight, a shortage of personal and community planning when it comes to where and how to age. We’ve separated our elders from their extended families without replacing what their relatives might once have provided: a decent quality of life, until the very end.

All photos courtesy of Kings Point.

About the Author

  • Lisa Selin Davis has written about cities, architecture, the environment and real estate for the New York Times, Time and many others. She lives in Brooklyn.