Seniors shouldn't go into hiding
Instead of segregating themselves in retirement communities, they can aid towns.
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
For 15 years, a retired neighbor named Arlene has watched over the block where my family lives.
Arlene has legal custody of a 10-year-old grandchild, but often cares for one or two others as well, including the occasional neighborhood playmate. She spends a lot of time outdoors, sweeping the sidewalk, puttering in the back yard, and generally keeping tabs on the neighborhood. If I want to know about the moving van I saw last week, or who´s putting the trash out a day early, I only need to ask Arlene.
People like Arlene are the lifeblood of traditional towns. They provide the eyes on the street that make neighborhoods secure. They give neighborhoods continuity, and they promote pride in their appearance.
That´s why the proliferation of active-adult communities in our suburban and rural areas is a worrisome trend. For decades, we´ve segregated housing by race and income, to the detriment of our communities. Now we´re promoting segregation by age.
It´s one thing to have senior housing in a town, where retirees can still be part of a diverse neighborhood. It´s another to cluster prosperous seniors in self-contained communities that are geographically separate from everyone else.
Active-adult communities are touted as places where retirees can get away from the irritants of life and have constant fun with their peers - golf, swimming, games, and lots of organized social activities. Of course, many retirees in these communities do volunteer work, but their isolation from the rest of the population makes it harder.
Moreover, when people limit social interaction to others who are mostly of their own age, tastes, and interests, they can lose perspective on the needs of the larger community. The natural tendency to self-absorption becomes more difficult to resist.
There´s an attractive alternative for Pennsylvania´s growing number of healthy, active retirees - a place where they can enjoy life to the fullest and still make a substantial contribution to society. It´s the traditional city and town.
Retirees often want to downsize their living space. Selling existing large homes to growing families can reduce the pressure for new construction on the urban fringe. At the same time, if retirees move to traditional towns, the dollars they spend locally can be used to restore older housing, build new housing, and help create service jobs where they´re needed most. Towns offer retirees a wide range of activities, neighborhoods where they can walk, and public transportation for longer trips.
Substandard schools are a major barrier to attracting families with children to cities and towns. But seniors don´t have to worry about schools. In fact, schools can offer them a beneficial relationship. In my town of Pottstown, for example, about 90 seniors volunteer in the classroom annually as part of the school district´s Golden Sage program. Seniors can reduce their taxes up to $500 a year through a voucher system that pays them for hours spent tutoring school children. But many Pottstown seniors don´t do it for the money - they want to be useful and enjoy the invigorating atmosphere of a roomful of children. And the kids desperately need their attention.
Diplomat-scholar Jeane Kirkpatrick said that as a young adult, her great discovery was that life needs purpose. "I tried for a period to do exactly and only what I wanted to do from day to day and all day," she said, "only to discover that in the absence of purpose, discipline, habit, there was little that I wanted to do." At 77, Kirkpatrick keeps at a purpose, currently serving as head of America´s delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
I´m not suggesting that people should work into their 70s or retirees should forgo the leisure they´ve earned after decades of work. But leisure fails to satisfy when it becomes an end unto itself, even for retirees. People of all ages want to be needed. In towns, retirees can give as well as receive, and that brings the most joy of all.