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Not My Place

Ron Wayne

LIKE MANY RETIREES, I’ve thought about moving. My two children are living elsewhere, and I have no other family in the Florida city where I’ve resided for more than 17 years. For two years, I’ve researched buying a condo closer to the ocean or even moving to Mexico, where my modest fixed income would go much further. Perhaps I should return to my hometown up north—something two friends from high school have already done.

One thing I know for sure: I wouldn’t want to live in a retirement community, especially one like The Villages in Central Florida. On the few occasions I’ve visited this sprawling development just 90 minutes south of my current home, I could tell it wasn’t for me. A new documentary available on YouTube confirms my gut reaction.

The Bubble provides an inside look at life in The Villages through numerous interviews with residents—which were conducted despite efforts by the developers’ representatives to prevent them. They likely knew the filmmakers would also examine the development’s negative impact on native residents, whose rural communities have been transformed into endless streets lined with cookie-cutter homes, golf courses and commercial developments.

In some ways, it’s no different from what you see across Florida. The Villages’ developers have created a kind of utopia for retirees who want to lead extremely active lives surrounded by people much like themselves. The documentary shows people ages 55 and older—the community’s designated age group—seemingly living a perfect life of sunshine, golf, dancing and socializing. The streets are spotless, and the lawns are kept green with fumigants and lots of water drained from the Floridan aquifer.

It’s clear the developers have tapped into a large market. The Villages ranked sixth in the nation and first in Florida in new homes built between 2010 and 2020. During that decade, it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S., ballooning 39% to some 130,000 residents. The demographic is 98% white, with twice as many Republicans as Democrats. The median age in 2018 was 67.4, or 29 years older than the typical American.

It’s great retirees have found a place that encourages them to feel young with a plethora of activities and opportunities to socialize. We all need that in our old age. But such a homogenous place makes it more like a ghetto than a village. The documentary suggests residents don’t want to be around younger people because they don’t want to be reminded that they’re aging. One resident freely speaks of the extensive plastic surgery she’s had on her face.

The documentary suggests many residents are lifelong transients, with no particular home where they still feel wanted or needed. That struck me as sad, and yet it’s probably true. I’m glad these folks have found a home, however temporary, in what’s billed as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.”

But while it may be a great retirement spot for others, it certainly isn’t the place for me. I don’t want to live in an illusion, in a place where ambulances turn off their sirens once they enter the development, so residents won’t be reminded of neighbors ailing and dying. One resident speaks of the deaths all around her.

I’d rather see young people and children every day, even if I don’t know them. I like being around those who are younger, which is easy in the large university town I live in. Teaching as an adjunct and studying for my master’s degree in my 50s inspired me not to relive my youth, but to feel good about the present and the future.

Comments on YouTube about The Bubble are generally positive. Viewers say it provides a balanced perspective on The Villages, as well as a broader picture of ageism and older Americans’ mindset. One commenter wrote: “Really wonderful at showing the humanity of the Villagers. Not my cup of tea, to say the least, but am now more open and sympathetic to different choices that people make in regards to aging.” But another commenter said he now understands why his aunt who lived there described it as “dystopian and creepy.”

Comments on a website for residents of The Villages were less complimentary about the documentary. “It’s just another hit piece about us and our community,” wrote one resident. “Is our community perfect? Of course not, we have our flaws and idiosyncrasies, but I think most will agree, there’s not a better place to retire and enjoy our golden years.”

Ron Wayne spent 26 years working for newspapers in Pennsylvania and Georgia before becoming the editor in the University of Florida’s main news office. During his 10 years working there, he earned his master’s degree in mass communication and taught as an adjunct in the College of Journalism and Communications. Since retiring in 2020, he’s enjoyed a simple life, including reflecting on his experiences on Medium.com. Check out Ron’s earlier articles.

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