Saturday, February 28, 2009

Leisureville – Andrew D. Blechman

Macbeth: Act 3, Scene 2:

… Duncan is in his grave;
23 After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
24 Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
25 Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
26 Can touch him further.

These words, uttered by Macbeth to his wife as he describes the hell that his life has become since his murder of Duncan, occurred to me as I read Andrew Blechman’s searing examination of age-segregated communities burgeoning in popularity in the United States. Is there anyone amongst us who has not pined, as Macbeth does in the above quote, for an existence free of the anxiety, disturbance and suffering that are inevitable components of life? Macbeth realizes the only way to realize such a utopian peace is through death; an increasing numbers of seniors, however, see it as achievable by removing themselves to retirement or age-segregated gated communities, virtually severing the once almost indissoluble ties of community and family in the process. Such is the promise of Leisureville, the wry title the author uses to describe his perception of life in such an environment. After reading the book, many readers may conclude that such communities are another form of what Macbeth longed for in his colloquy with his wife.

While always treating his subject with respect, after living for a month in such a community at the invitation of former neighbours who moved to “The Villages,” the foremost age-segregated community in central Florida, the author draws a portrait of a life that, from most people’s perspective, can only be described as vapid and meaningless. Although days upon endless days filled with swimming, golfing and drinking in a sheltered environment may seem alluring to many, one inevitably has to ask if this is any way for a responsible person to spend the rest of his or her life. Considering that many of the retirees have perhaps 30 or more years of life remaining, the answer has to be no.

Blechman makes a pretty strong case for community engagement and involvement throughout one’s life, not just up to retirement, arguing that inter-generational co-existence is what gives true meaning and vitality to communities. While acknowledging that North American society as a whole doesn’t do a particularly good job of either encouraging or looking after its retired people, he clearly doesn’t see secession as the answer.

In addition to the societal implications of seniors’ self-removal from the larger world, Blechman also examines the environmental and political implications of such movements. For example, owing to their mild climates, two of the most popular states for age-restricted communities are Florida and Arizona. At least up to the present, there have been very few restrictions placed on development, despite the fact that water is becoming increasing scarce in both states, with droughts occurring with disturbing regularity. The author discusses sinkholes happening in The Villages due to depletion of aquifers; as well, he makes regular reference to the bulldozing and flattening of land as The Villages continues its relentless development. Another consequence of this kind of lifestyle is the domination of very conservative politics, led by the developers who, with their vast resources, contribute significant sums to both the Republican Party and local politicos that welcome unrestricted development while at the same time largely ignoring and denigrating the needs of the larger community.

All of us need and deserve regular hiatuses from the hurly-burly of life. In my view, Andrew Blechman makes a compelling argument through Leisureville that none of us deserves a life-long commutation from it.

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