Adelaide "Addie" Finneran, 83, is my escort to the future. Or one possible future—a future in which I am an "active adult" (which, given Addie's level of activity, would mean being a lot more active than I am now) and living in a community like Leisure World, where Addie has been a resident since 1988.
I am a baby boomer, which makes me one of those sickening, self-obsessed, rapidly aging people you nonboomers wish would just shut up and shuffle off already. Although at age 50 I still have a margin of five years of "youth" before I can become a resident of Leisure World, the frequent entreaties I receive from AARP remind me how long ago my youth really was. (And if you think the Bush administration is monitoring you, try keeping your 50th birthday a secret from AARP.) For this Human Guinea Pig, I wanted to preview what old age would be like. Usually this column is about exploring odd corners of life so you don't have to. But this time, I'm just getting there ahead of you, because if you're lucky, you'll get there, too.
Addie, who was a housewife, makes a good case for getting old. Her mind is agile and her body obeys her wishes. Her most noticeable sign of age is that she bends forward slightly at the waist, so when she walks, which she does vigorously, it is as if she is heading into a strong wind. She was widowed young, twice. Once in 1950, when her husband died in a car accident, leaving her with a 2-year-old; the second time in 1981, when her husband—with whom she had two more children—died of complications of multiple sclerosis. After his death, Addie's daughter, who lives in Maryland, convinced her to abandon Florida and come to Leisure World in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
She says it is one of the best decisions she ever made, ticking off some of the scores of activities available to the 8,500 residents: everything from aerobics, to ceramics, to golf, to theatricals, to woodworking. Include archery and it would sound very much like my daughter's summer camp.
Leisure World, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next month, was one of the earliest retirement communities on the East Coast—the country's most celebrated was Sun City in Arizona, which opened in 1960. There are no official numbers on how many places like Leisure World exist—in Florida and Arizona many such communities come together ad hoc without an age restriction because the developments look so much like Leisure Worlds that no one but older people buy in. (For ones that do require residents to be 55 or older, an exemption of the Fair Housing Act makes it legal to discriminate against the unwrinkled.) These communities are not assisted living, in which somewhat frail people get on-site help. The average Leisure World resident is in her late 70s—although they don't have statistics on sex ratios, the females appear to outnumber the males about 3-to-1.
As I walk the lovely landscaped grounds, I try to imagine my husband and myself living there. Given that my father died at 72 and my husband's parents are still going strong at 87 and 94, all I can envision is my quick demise, followed by my husband being inundated with fluffy-haired women bearing casseroles. (Ladies, go light on the cream sauce!)
This night Addie lets me sit at her table for the weekly on-site bingo game; Addie and her friends frequent a regular bingo circuit around town. Although the game starts at 7 p.m., by 6:15 the place is quickly filling. In my brief sojourn into old age, I realize that before I actually get there I better develop two qualities I now lack: being early, and a belief that I will win games of chance. Addie has already staked out her table on the side of the room and saved seats for two friends: Ann Simpson, 77, and Charlotte (who wants to keep her last name out of it), 62. Ann, who did drafting for the phone company, was also widowed young—her husband died of a heart attack in 1980. I ask Addie and Ann if they are searching for romance, and they both adamantly shake their heads no.
"Do you know what a man our age is looking for?" Ann asks me. "A nurse with a purse."
Addie says that for the last two years of her husband's life she kept him out of a nursing home by caring for him round-the-clock. Since men have a propensity to fall ill and die, she never wants to be in that situation again.
About 150 people have shown up for bingo, and everyone is engaged in lively chatter. There is none of the silent, disinfectant gloom of the nursing home. Addie introduces me to some of her friends. I talk to Anita Robinson and Bill Brasile, who are both in their 80s. For the last two years, Anita, a widow, and Bill, a widower, have been dance and life partners. Like many couples who meet at Leisure World, they have no desire to marry. "His apartment is not big enough for me, and mine's not big enough for him," Anita says. (Addie explains that when people each have property, grown children, and grandchildren, marriage can just result in an estate-planning mess.)