When a reader recently wrote to ask what life is like in an "active adult community" and how she might begin to make a decision about whether or not to move to one, I couldn't help but think back on two real life scenarios -- one eight years back, one a few months ago.
When Bob and I moved from Los Angeles to Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch, a new (still some years from build-out) Del Webb community designed for Baby Boomers and located in rural Arizona halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, the possibilities seemed endless. That first summer we lived here -- the summer of 2010 -- everyone else on our small street was new and excited, too. We were in and out of each other's homes, having parties and open houses, taking day trips together, spending long, languid afternoons in the community resort pool, talking, laughing and giving quiet thanks for our good fortune in finding this place and each other.
The changes were minor at first. We saw a little less of each other as new, perhaps more compatible, friendships evolved. In some instances, a misunderstanding or dispute cooled our enthusiasm for getting together.
Then the big changes started happening: one neighbor died of cancer, another of a stroke. Yet another is suffering from untreatable cancer. And one, with heart failure and severe arthritis, has become house-bound. Not long ago, he called Bob to come help him get off the toilet. And another neighbor is sinking into dementia. It's beyond sobering.
When our next door neighbors Larry and Louise recently decided to sell their home and move back to Seattle, the contrast between the two healthy people they were just a few years ago and their growing disabilities was striking. Larry is going blind from macular degeneration and Louise is afflicted with a devastating neurological disorder. Getting Louise up and out of the house when there was a showing of the house was a task Larry found overwhelming. So they stayed. As the months dragged on without an offer, their realtor sat down with them for some hard truths: first, staying at the house when he was showing it to prospective buyers was never a good idea, even under the best of circumstances. But, second, it was a particularly bad idea when Louise -- sitting in in the living room near the front door, surrounded by the accoutrements of her infirmity -- was the first sight prospective buyers saw.
"The thing is," the realtor told Larry. "These prospects have a dream of an endless, active vacation here. They're buying this dream of active late adulthood just as you did eight years ago. They're buying a dream of being healthy and happy and functional for the rest of their lives. They don't need to see this."
Yes, the evolution from vigor to infirmity, from active adulthood to crippled old age, is hard to see.
It is, to be sure, a reality wherever one lives. It seems magnified, however, when it is happening all around one.
This isn't a reason not to consider moving to an active adult community. But it is something to think about when weighing the decision.
Looking at pros and cons of active adult communities, it depends so much on what you expect, on your perceptions of aging and where that community happens to be.
For example, some active adult communities -- like the Del Webb communities in Illinois and Indiana -- are mostly populated by full-time residents and may be more cohesive. In the Sunbelt active adult communities, there may be a definitive split between full-time residents and part-timers (called Snowbirds). In our community, for example, about half the residents are here only three to six months a year. They are largely from the Midwest, Washington-Oregon and Canada. They tend to be more affluent than the rest of us and to hang together when they're here. Many are truly delightful people with whom we enjoy reconnecting when they arrive each fall. But with so many part-timers, our community has a very a different feel, something that we did not anticipate when we were looking for a more cohesive community than the one we left in suburban Los Angeles.
Another thing to ask yourself as you fantasize about life in an active adult community: how much does the dream coincide -- or not -- with your current lifestyle? While you may find yourself becoming more physically active when you lose the harrowing commute and the full-time job, you may not change your ways quite as much as you imagine. I've found, by looking around and within, that as you age, you tend to become more of whatever you were before. While Bob and I envisioned ourselves being more socially active (we told ourselves that we weren't that social in L.A. because we were spending such long hours working and commuting), we really aren't especially social here either. He hates parties, dances, most social events. I sometimes go alone or with a friend. But more often, we're home. We read a lot, exercise, enjoy music. I have continued to work most days writing books, blog posts, etc. I've made some good friends here, though my closest friends are in L.A. and Chicago. We visit back and forth. But, day to day, our life here isn't all that different. We've lost the commute. Bob is retired. I'm still working long hours. And we've remained fairly solitary, even as social events and opportunities surround us.
Also, the concept of large, age-restricted active adult communities is beginning to change.
Our particular community is a hybrid active adult community: there is a Sun City part with its own rec center and two pools and then we have access to the all ages rec center that is part of the larger all ages community of Parkside at Anthem Merrill Ranch. When our neighbors' grandchildren visit, they go to the all ages rec center and pool. Other active adult communities have rules about the hours that children under 18 can use the pools. (Usually, adult children 18 and over can freely use any of the facilities.) Some of our neighbors have children and grandchildren living in the all ages section of our community. This may well be a trend for the future -- a move away from large age-segregated communities to smaller, blended ones.
An active aduIt community may be for you if:
- You would enjoy having great fitness and recreational amenities close at hand.
- You would like taking all kinds of different classes (from fitness to languages, local history, etc.) and learning new skills (from line dancing to quilting).
- You and your spouse are social and would enjoy informal get-togethers, dances, parties, day trips and occasional overnight excursions.
- If you have an interest in/are open to activities like all manner of card games, MahJong, trivia games, etc.
- You enjoy socializing with people your age as well as entertaining visiting friends and family who are younger.
- Your family is scattered geographically (or emotionally) or you have no children and are looking for a caring community of peers
An active adult community might not be for you if:
- It would mean moving farther from children and grandchildren than you would like.
- Your primary joy is being with kids and grandkids and old friends and you're not especially interested in making new same-age friends.
- The idea of being surrounded by older people gives you the creeps.
- You're not a joiner, would be unlikely to use the facilities and don't like the idea of a planned community with rules (like what color you can paint your house) or HOA fees. (Ours are $125 a month -- a real bargain for all the amenities we have and the beauty of the community.)
- You find the possibility of two moves -- one to an active adult community and another to a retirement facility or back close to your kids when your health begins to falter -- overwhelming.
- You're already old or infirm enough not to be especially active. In this instance, a facility offering independent and assisted living might be a better choice.
As Larry and Louise's real estate agent pointed out, the whole concept of active adult living is based, in part, on the fantasy that after retirement (or even before if you're fortunate enough to live and work close to such a community now), you will be active, doing all the things you love to do for the foreseeable future.
And that fantasy can become reality -- for a while. Some of us have a longer run of good times and good health than others. As we get into our seventies, we're beginning to see the stark reality that active adulthood doesn't go on forever. Of the original full-time residents who moved onto this street eight years ago, Bob and I are the only ones left. We feel very blessed to still be healthy and active. But we know, with new clarity, that it is all very fragile.
Now Bob and I, at 74 and 73 respectively, are the elders on the block while our new next door neighbors are in their fifties and early sixties, with three of the four still working full-time. So life goes on....
Would we make the choice to live in an active adult community again?
Would we choose to live in this particular active adult community?
Perhaps -- though, knowing what we know now, we might choose a community a little less rural. For all the joys of living in wide open spaces with a wonderful small-town feel and lack of traffic, the remoteness of our community can be a serious, life limiting problem for those who become unable to drive. A place closer to public transportation, medical centers, a variety of restaurants and stores might be more enticing.
Making the choice to move or to stay put, to grow older among extended family and long-time friends or to strike out for new adventures and some new friends, to live life as you have known it or to live an active adult resort fantasy -- at least for awhile -- is not an easy one.
It's so much a matter of looking within and determining what makes sense for you, what would please you most, what would feel most congruent with your own cherished goals and dreams.