Wednesday, November 14, 2012

To Age -- or Not?

by D.R. Shoultz

I just finished the final draft of my current book, Better Late Than Ever.  It’s a story about Phil Greenfield, a divorced, successful 60-year-old businessman who retires to The Glades, a fictitious planned retirement community in central Florida.  The novel is set three years into the future and describes some of the more bizarre aspects of retirement communities in America – depicting them as pristine, homogeneous, senior citizen playgrounds focused on creating an environment that enables and encourages residents to re-experience their youth.  

Phil finds himself in the middle of a fast-paced, sexual revolution where retirees in their 60’s are reliving the 1960’s with the aid of nips, tucks, and anti-aging medications.  He discovers this zest for youthful exuberance comes at a costly, and sometimes deadly, price.  Once sucked into its ageless pleasures, Phil faces a dilemma on what to do when he uncovers the complete story of The Glades.  

As with my other novels, the inspiration for this book comes from personal experience.  This is not to say my life parallels Phil’s, or that I secretly want to be Phil.  However, being 60, I’ve watched several of my friends plan and execute their retirements. I have also visited many retirement communities in the process of considering my own retirement options.  It is a subject I am close to.

The baby boomer generation in America is different than any that has preceded it.  Much has been written about them (or should I say us?) and how they are shaping the beginning of the 21st century: the economy, the culture, and yes, aging.

I believe what makes them unique and why they view aging differently can be boiled down to a few key points.  First is their numbers. They are reaching 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day.  This will continue to 2030, at which time more than 18% of the U.S. population will be at least 65 years old.  Representing such a large segment of the population, boomers don’t need to react to trends – they can set them.  They don’t need to be what others expect them to be – they can be who and what they want to be.  If there is safety in numbers, the boomers clearly have the numbers.

The second key point is that 65 is much younger today than it has ever been.  Medical advances and healthier lifestyles (e.g. fewer smokers, daily exercise, etc.) have made the baby boomers the most robust and most youthful looking 65-year-olds in history.  Baby boomer life expectancy has risen more than 10 years in their lifetimes alone.  Today’s 65-year-olds can expect to live well into their 80’s, with women past 85.  Those retiring at 60 have the final “trimester” of their life to look forward to.

Another key point making today’s retirees unique has been the fragmentation or dislocation of families.  Prior generations of retirees typically grew old in the community and home where they’d lived for years – close to family and lifelong friends.  They didn’t expect anything different.  That’s what their parents did, that’s what they were going to do.  However, today’s children often relocate in search of an education, jobs, relationships, or just in search of adventure.  The nuclear family with multiple generations living in the same community is becoming more and more rare.  Retirees no longer are “tied to” their homes or “expected to” stay put, opening up a wide range of retirement options and locations.

The final factor making today’s retirees unique is their options.   For those baby boomers who have worked hard, saved responsibly, and maintained a healthy lifestyle, the world is their oyster.  Dozens of fun-in-the-sun places have been built specifically for them. These retirement meccas began popping up late in the 20th century anticipating their arrival, complete with golf courses, tennis courts, spas, shopping centers and restaurants.  The other great thing about these retirement communities is the homogeneity of the residents – everyone is over 55.   Residents get to look and act like other 55+ retirees expect them to act, and not how their 20-something nieces and nephews expect. 

The boomers are unique.  Their numbers are significant, they are healthier and more youthful than prior generations, they aren’t tied to their lifelong homes and communities, and they have options that allow them to retreat to recreational, age-defying enclaves with their baby boomer friends.  So, does all this make communities like The Glades possible?  Potentially, or my novel lacks believability.  But the bigger question is where does this put me and my retiring friends?

For now, my wife and I still live in a middleclass Charlotte neighborhood where she’s worked and lived for many years.  We also have a getaway place in a mountain community dominated by, but not exclusive to, retirees.  We debate about what we’ll do when my wife retires next year, and we are no longer tied to Charlotte.  Our four kids and five grandkids are spread out over 3 states, stretching 2,000 miles from one end to the other, the closest being 500 miles away.

As I get older, I think a lot about my mom and dad and how they experienced aging and retirement.  My father has very little in common with Phil Greenfield.  He’d never move to The Glades, or even consider it.  He’s lived the past 50 years in the Midwest and in the same house with my mother – the house I grew up in.  My two sisters live less than 30 minutes away from my parents. Most of their grandchildren and great grandchildren live nearby, and they visit regularly.  I was the only family member to relocate, but I make it back every holiday – because it is still home.

My father has grown older, naturally.  He never really wanted to re-live his youth in a retirement community, nor does he even know someone who has.  Dad is a good-looking man.  He worked hard and made a good living.  He’s always been active and in good health, but when he was 60, he looked 60.  He’s now 83 and looks 83.  I’m sure he thinks he’s done it the right way.  I think he has, too. 

No comments:

Post a Comment