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June 29, 2009
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An Outbreak of Aging

The HR Doctor just returned from a visit to The Villages in Central Florida. It is a huge area that spans multiple counties and cities, and takes the form of a special district, not unlike the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which we know by the more popular name of DisneyWorld. In a sense, visiting The Villages is not unlike a visit to DisneyWorld. 

Imagine tens of thousands of senior citizens overwhelmingly retired, middle and higher socio-economic demographics but with little demographic variety compared to the rest of the universe. 

During my brief visit, I was nearly run down repeatedly by speeding golf carts. The danger was partly my own fault. I failed to realize initially that the golf carts at The Villages have their own roadway system and their own parking areas at shopping centers.

Like visiting London, the tourist is in grave danger of stepping off the curb while looking the wrong way. I also noticed a Villages cottage industry in which golf carts are customized not only in body style but in paint jobs and logos reflecting the owner’s favorite college or sports team. 

Armed with my newly acquired respect for the potential blunt trauma injury caused by flying golf carts, I noticed there was also an expected array of businesses and facilities that catered to senior citizens. Apparently The Villages is a great place if you’re a physician practicing in specialties such as orthopedics, urology, cardiology or geriatrics — at least if you accept Humana’s Medicare supplement. The place is full of medical facilities, outlet shopping facilities with great bargains and restaurants whose prime menu items appear to be soft food served during extended “early bird” hours.

The aging of the baby-boomers such as myself gives rise to retreats like The Villages as part of a desire, if not a fear or panic, that drives people to escape from more urban, higher-crime and more crowded areas to what can be billed as a better and safer lifestyle.

It is true that most of the facilities of The Villages appear rather new and are certainly clean. The many golf courses are beautiful, and we noted dozens of specialty, personal interest clubs open only to people who show their Villages resident card. It certainly appears safer than life in many other areas, with expectations for higher levels of public safety and coverage by multiple police jurisdictions through contract.

Needless to say, fire-rescue crews are kept busy not only with the effects of acute health crises of aging but also with what must be inevitable roll-over accidents involving golf carts. 

Despite all the amenities, the obvious wealth, and the fact that for many thousands of people The Villages lives up to its billing as a high-end, high-lifestyle retreat, there were some characteristics that did not lead the HR Doctor to rush over and put a sizeable down payment on one of the lovely homes.

A wonderful friend, colleague, and HR director resigned as the head of The Villages HR function, noting that he felt it to be something akin to the Stepford Wives. The lack of diversity in both age and ethnicity diminished the living experience of the place. It would be wonderful to see young people, but in a greater context than simply visiting grandma and grandpa occasionally.

America is experiencing an outbreak of aging with all that it means for our public institutions and our public policies. Not only is there another episode of the impending Social Security funding crisis coming soon, but the acute failure to create a coherent national health care policy will become increasingly serious and tragic.

Lifestyle issues for seniors, including social networking, as well as health, transportation and self-actualization will be far more important in America when we have coffee together and look back at the situation in 10 years. 

Those with the money and the information can find a temporary haven in places like The Villages. They can feel very lucky that they were able to do so compared to the large majority of their fellow senior citizens in America and around the world.  For most women over age 65, Social Security is the number one source of retirement income. The average $1,000 a month payment, however, hardly enables the lifestyle that most of us would wish for ourselves or for others. 

Government institutions will not be able to meet the promises made to the aging population by putting off the day when difficult decisions have to be made. Likewise, serious problems will not be solved by making loud noises claiming sympathy and understanding of the problems but then going on a recess and hoping to avoid the problems, perhaps until after the current crop of legislators themselves retire.

The Villages may well represent a model place to live; however, it may also be a small, well-protected haven for the few in a society in which the majority of people face problems realizing their retirement dreams. 

These problems are not being fully understood or properly addressed by those we elect and appoint to be our partners in looking after our futures.  If they were, we would not be displaying the symptoms of short-sighted policy paralysis so often.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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