Given a blank sheet of paper and few constraints, how would you want to live the last twenty or thirty years of your life? Most of us can now fairly confidently look forward to a prolonged period after we retire when we are more free than we have ever been to choose how we want to spend that time.
Perhaps you’d do what a friend has done and move to Cornwall because it was a lifelong itch that she was desperate to scratch before it was too late. Perhaps you’d clear out the detritus of your life stored for too long in your loft, downsize to a small apartment or bungalow, buy a motorhome and hit the open road. Perhaps you’d enrol on a degree course and explore all the avenues of academe long closed to you because of lack of time. Or maybe, like me you’d make one last throw of your entrepreneurial dice and start a new business. What I cannot imagine me or any of my friends doing, however, is heading to ‘The Villages’ in Florida to ‘live the American dream in some kind of heaven’ comprised of a community of 130,000 retirees who have their every need catered to in what feels and looks like a massive playground for very tanned and very wrinkled toddlers, all dressed in their bright leisure clothes.
Never has the term ‘Baby’ Boomers seemed more apt. And never has the prospect of being in a retirement community with 129,999 others like me seemed more grisly.
I have formed this impression by watching a documentary called ‘Some Kind of Heaven’ filmed entirely in The Villages, a community for well-healed seniors in Florida which was the brainchild of a property developer called Howard Schwartz. Starting with his very own blank sheet of paper in the mid 80s, he came up with the idea that old folks like me and you would just love a safe and predictably unchanging environment modelled on the principles of Disneyland. Nothing would be real or genuine but The Villages would have an old-fashioned look and feel redolent of the places that baby boomers lived as children. There’d be old-fashioned town centres and all the buildings would be faked to look long established despite being brand new. Schwatz’s son recalled how the histories of all the buildings were made up over a bottle of Scotch to appeal to a strong sense of nostalgia for nicer, better, safer times gone by. And it worked! Schwartz was right and in the film we see the prospective buyers of a property in The Villages saying “I love that every house is the same and that it’s still going to be the same in five, ten, twenty years time whenever I look out of my window.” I suppose that’s one way to stop getting older; just stop anything around you from changing.
You may think that the film is one long advertisement for the joys of such cocooned living. Far from it! Despite all the fake bonhomie, synchronized golf cart manoeuvring for the men (I kid you not), line dancing and cheerleading for the women amongst a dizzying myriad of fun group activities, the film tells the stories of four of the inhabitants (I very nearly said inmates) who is, each in his or her own way, both extremely lonely and very unhappy. Take Anne and Reggie, apparently the perfect long-married couple. However, their forty-seven year old relationship has deep cracks and unlike the fake ones in the walls of their pretend town centre, these are real. Anne’s face is a study of quiet despair as Reggie, who is deeply into Eastern mysticism and marijuana, declares that he has died and been reincarnated and is now physically invincible (which I guess is another way to dodge actual death).
Then there’s Dennis. I just know that I’d be catnip for eighty-three year old Dennis who is a penniless grifter from California which he’s fled because of an unpaid fine for driving his van whilst drunk. He can’t afford a place in The Villages so he parks up and lives out of his van, and sees the rich widowed women sunning themselves by the pool as his potential meal ticket “as long as they’re decent enough looking to be seen out with (!)”. When younger his mantra was ‘live fast, love hard and die poor’, and as he says wistfully in the film “I’m right there now, I’m poor.” Be careful what you wish for-eh? And finally there’s Barbara who is recently widowed from a later marriage and who is having to work because all her savings have gone. She says of The Villages “this has not been the fantasy land of my dreams. My thoughts constantly wander to home in Massachusetts but I haven't enough to go back”. The documentary maker, Lance Oppenheim, poignantly captures the utter desolation on her pretty, perfectly made-up face as she resignedly plods on with the rest of her life.
I approached this film, which is our Film Club choice for next Friday (see below), with a degree of cynicism, expecting that it would portray these privileged ‘seniors’ as having found their very own nirvana. But it was a much more interesting, insightful, nuanced and honest portrayal of the fact that we take ourselves with us wherever we go. I have also found it brilliantly helpful because it has shown me more clearly than ever just how I don’t want to live for the next years of whatever life I have left.
Why living in The Villages in Florida is Not My Kind of Heaven:
I don’t want to live in a ghetto. The qualification for living there is to be old enough to do so, but I feel that my age is the least interesting aspect of who I am, not the most (or only) thing that defines me as a human being.
I don’t want to live in a fake version of my childhood town. I can remember the high street of the small town in which I was born, especially because my family owned one of the shops. However, I have absolutely no nostalgic desire to go back to a place which epitomized the phrase ‘small-town mentality ’and which I was so happy to escape at the age of seventeen.
I don’t want to be infantilized. Many extol the virtues of retirement as ‘a second childhood’. A time to play and enjoy yourself. That’s fine but bear in mind that it’s a short hop from that to being treated like some idiotic toddler.
I don’t want to be surrounded by people just like me. There are no black faces in The Villages. The vast majority of the married, widowed and divorced people there (I would assume) are heterosexual and come from a (probably white collar) background. Diversity teaches us tolerance and acceptance and I want to be confronted and challenged every day to accept that not everyone sees the world as I do.
I don’t want to do endless group activities like synchronized swimming. No surprise that there are so many such activities in The Villages. All involve a uniformity of dress, a uniformity of action and a uniformity of mind. A bit like school, this is the way that you accept the rules and fit in.
I don’t want to live in a place where there are no children. As I sit writing this it’s playtime at my nearby primary school. The sound of children’s voices fills the air and fills me with joy. I want to see, hear and experience that exuberant energy as much as I can because it’s a potent reminder of the cycle of our lives.
I don’t want to live somewhere without seasons. Florida: Warmth, sunshine, continuous outdoor living - what’s not to like? Well I love the rhythm of the seasons. I need to live somewhere that gives me different and changing light and temperatures.
I don’t want to feel isolated whilst surrounded by a sea of people apparently having a great time. I live alone but am never lonely, possibly because I don’t feel at all isolated from people or from life. Anne, Reggie, Barbara and Dennis all carry their loneliness inside themselves and it seems to be exacerbated by being surrounded by thousands of others apparently having the time of their lives.
And above all, I don’t want to be propositioned by men like Dennis! Oh I’d definitely tick all of Dennis’s boxes! Ten years younger. Tick. Presentable. Tick. Independent income. Tick. Own home. Tick. Divorced. Tick. My own teeth. Tick (I just made that one up!) But I can think of few things worse than waking up with Dennis in my bed.
None of us knows what the future will bring and I can understand why so many people are drawn to what is sold by The Villages as ‘The Fountain of Youth’. Well I have absolutely no desire to drink at that particular fountain and I am indebted to the film ‘Some Kind of Heaven’ for helping me to understand just why this kind of purpose-built retirement community would be my kind of hell. Now I just have to work out where my kind of heaven might be.
Upcoming Event Information:
Tricia Talk - Jodie Filogomo, Fashion Blogger
Jodie believes it's never too late to look great, no matter your age, size or budget. Along with her mother and close friend, she showcases weekly clothing style inspiration, with lots of tips and tricks on how to add fun to your clothes.
It's not my kind of heaven either Tricia and it is obvious how the whole thing rankled with you. However your comments came across as a bit superior & dismissive to me. I try to be more accepting of others' choices, even if they would not be my own. There are plenty of long-term marriages that can be described as 'lives of quiet desperation'. Many couples become very isolated in the UK with too little opportunity to spend time apart which I think is the key to maintaining relationships over the years. The number of retirement 'villages' is increasing in the UK but they are nothing like as self-contained or as large as the one you describe. They can be a good solution to loneliness in older age-if you can afford it - and give families who may live some distance away peace of mind.
I live in the northern part of Florida, a very long way from The Villages. I have friends who visit relatives there about once a year. They call it "going to camp". Word has it that The Villages has a very high rate of STDs amongst the population. I guess you're never too old.