"Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias"
By Andrew D. Blechman
Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $25
"Leisureville" is at first glance a vast facade. I mean the book. I also mean The Villages, the place dubbed "Leisureville" by Great Barrington author Andrew Blechman. In an unlikely intentional yet effective parallel to his subject, Blechman surprises, amuses and intently informs, all under the guise of light reading as he tackles the rise of the age-segregated retirement village.
Blechman was first introduced to the idea by his Berkshire neighbors, Dave and Betsy, and their decision to leave New England behind in favor of luxurious living in The Villages of central Florida. Blechman learns that The Villages, nestled on more than 20,000 acres, is the "largest gated retirement community in the world."
Both awed and disillusioned at his acquaintances' detachment from their diverse traditional town to move where Betsy willingly compares the residents favorably to "The Stepford Wives," Blechman's curious nature prompts him to settle in as their guest for an extended stay to get a clearer view of such an arrangement.
Of course, the idea of a utopian retirement is appealing. But what Blechman discovers is a world of bureaucratic complexity, illusions and rigid rules. Residents settle into vacation-like structured bliss and brush aside queries of local private "government." Descriptions of complicated classes designed to shed light on the subject are as mind boggling to the reader as they are to Blechman himself. He makes a strong effort to explain in more helpful layman terms the state governmental guidelines for the existence of such large, private communities, as well as the history of the earliest retirement communities, although there may be no possible way to smoothly communicate all the intricacies of such a complicated business structure.
Blechman weaves his presentation with personal bias and often editorializes his findings. He doesn't mask, for example, his disdain at age segregation (or age discrimination, if you will,) and readily ties in the more unpleasant examples of anti-child sentiment in such communities.
It is therefore important as a reader to keep one question open is this really an entire quasi-civilization of people who do nothing more than bask in the sun and refuse to question authority, as is strongly insinuated? Unlikely. The elderly as individuals are infused with decades of firsthand knowledge. A freely chosen final lifestyle of relaxation devoid of resident children does not erase their impact on society or their experiential intelligence; they are far more than the sum of "when I was your age."
One can be sure that Villagers have just as much conviction behind their decisions as someone far younger watching from the sidelines. Again, more than meets the eyes and ears of any short-term outside observer. But Blechman's slanted questioning about this, and the mindset required to fully immerse as a Villager, doesn't detract from what he factually uncovers.
"Leisureville" is a highly relevant book, as everyone is touched in some way by so-called generational divides. I began reading it expecting little beyond humorous anecdotes about retirement living. What I got, instead, was an intense look into the trials and errors of a generation of mass retirees. It shows the potential and actual consequences of trying to accommodate the wants and needs of people finished with their careers and raising their children, but not yet ready physically or emotionally for the confines of hospice-like retirement homes.
Reading it can make you laugh, gasp, shake your head in amazement, and confirm or question your own retirement plans, but like any educational text you will finish with the feeling that the story is not yet complete.
It continuously fits into our lives, opening our eyes to our personal connections with a generation taken for granted to have already found its own way and allowing us to see that there is no conclusion to the quest for that perfect final stop in life.
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