“Old age” promises Robert Browning, “will the last of life for which the first is made.” However, I, as a physician, see from those who are experiencing their golden years that it appears to be filled with most of the same uncertainties, conflicts, loneliness and fears of all the other ages.
One of the institutions of my adopted country that I have never been able to fathom is that of the planned retirement community. Found primarily in the Sunbelt States, there has been a mushrooming of entire cities like the Villages in Florida or Leisure World in Southern California dedicated exclusively for those over 55. Sometimes referred to as “God’s waiting room,” these developments were designed to create a problem-free world for financially comfortable senior residents wanting to live a perpetual fantasy of fun and companionship. Made up primarily of white, well-to-do retirees, they offer literally thousands of group activities in a Disneyland-like setting. Providing everything from food to entertainment, residents need never leave their gates. The question is, just how happy are those who have chosen to live like they are on a perpetual luxury cruise, living like the lotus eaters who forget everything but the pleasures of the present moment described in Tennyson’s poem.
Speaking only for myself, I can’t imagine myself living in an age-defined ghetto, bereft of contact with those of all ages, circumstances, and ideas, and focused on nothing more than my own pleasure. Just as I can’t see myself spending my life on a perpetual vacation, I have trouble imagining a meaningful existence centered on nothing but pleasure seeking activities. It was therefore interesting to me come across an article in the last issue of the Harvard Magazine about a recent documentary by Lance Oppenheimer, Some Kind of Heaven, that explored life in the Villages. He finds that for many of the retirees, life isn’t paradise, but paradise lost. The hour and twenty minute documentary was released in 2020, and can be streamed or downloaded. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but it got a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and promises an interesting insight into the lives of those portrayed.
I would be curious to hear from any of you who have experience with anyone living in one of these communities, or your own insights if you currently reside in such a place. The challenge for all of us is to consider how to find meaning (as opposed to just pleasure) in our remaining years. As the creator of the documentary states, “Everyone, no matter where you are in your life, has dreams and desires.” Exploring this theme is much more compelling than simply saying, “Hey, there is a bunch of older people who have decided to live in this really strange place.”