06 September 2010

The American Spectator takes on age-segregation

The American Spectator
THE NATION'S PULSE: Active Adult Communities and the 'Grace of Chaos'
By James M. Thunder

On August 10, Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute wrote the essay "Are Children the Enemy of Productivity?" He quoted Frank Cottrell Boyce's article in the Guardian:

There's a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn't the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming -- Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam -- of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Mason agrees with Boyce that children do not distract us from productivity, but he added that he believes they actually enhance our productivity and enhance our lives generally. Children, he writes, "remind us that the greatest insights in the world were discovered not while ponderously meditating, but while delighting in the simple pleasures and pains of life."

Boyce's and Mason's words reminded me of when I was 42. My wife and I and our daughters, ages 16 to 5, moved to a suburb outside Milwaukee. Our next-door neighbors were a retired veterinarian, Dr. Frank Gentile, and his wife, Irene, both about 80. As it turned out, they knew my sister and her family who lived in the next suburb.

We moved away a few years later. And Frank and Irene moved into an assisted living home and passed on.

But my family does not forget them. I have memories of snowblowing their driveway and sidewalk and watching election returns with them. My daughters recall with great fondness their invitations to eat cookies with them after school in their kitchen. One of my daughters and I and Frank sang in the same church choir.

During these same years, we became family to my sister's widowed father-in-law, Jack Schlosser, who was in his 80s and lived nearby. He came to many events of both my sister's family and my family. And one of his grandchildren lived behind us.

In this past year, I've known a couple of people who have moved into active adult communities. Active adult communities are planned, often gated, residential areas for people ages 55 and up, without children under the age of 18. Our three elderly friends outside Milwaukee could have moved to one of them. If they had, all three of our generations (elderly, middle-aged and children) would have been deprived of fruitful, loving relationships.

The number of active adult communities continues to grow in our country. Why?

Residents are repelled by certain aspects of urban or suburban life: the noises of children and of teenagers, crime, and high property taxes that supported schools. And they are attracted by amenities -- bike and walking paths, golf courses, clubhouses, swimming pools, tennis courts, a full plate of indoor recreational activities. While these same amenities are typically available in urban and suburban communities, active adult communities provide them together and close at hand.

I submit that active adult communities are inimical to a rich human life. While still active, while still mobile, while still employed, the residents have purposefully disengaged from their elders, from teenagers, from children -- except on the specific dates and time and places they select. On the spectrum of what should be regarded as examples of faith-based land use planning and what should not, active adult communities fall on the extreme of "not."

When I was in college, I would return home of course. In church, it would feel quite odd to be among young children, teenagers, middle-aged people and the elderly. At first I was happy to return to campus and be with my same-age peers. Later, it was the campus rather than the church that seemed odd. I started calling college campuses "youth reservations." But at least college campuses have redeeming value. They are devoted to the development of the intellect and the transmission of knowledge. They are populated by people intending to remain no more than four years and then go out and change the world. Residents of active adult communities, on the other hand, could remain 20-plus years, and to what good purpose are they devoted?

There may be value in being a "gun-free" or "tobacco-free" or "drug-free" zone, but where is the value in having grown-ups post "child-free" signs? Where is the value in having them post signs declaring "under-age-55-free zones"?

I submit that the groomed and tranquil landscapes of active adult communities are a blight on our larger communities and our nation.

In utter contrast to this blight is the recent development of one-room portable modules that house elderly persons. They will be placed temporarily on the lot of a caregiver's permanent home. The Commonwealth of Virginia recently passed legislation allowing such siting to supersede local zoning laws. The juxtaposition of permanent and temporary housing structures may not be aesthetically pleasing but, in similar fashion, school districts around the country have sited temporary classrooms next to school buildings for the sake our schoolchildren. Hopefully, these modules for the care of our frail elderly will blossom across the landscape. Virginians have welcomed "the grace of chaos."

James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. lawyer who has spoken and published on what he calls "faith-based land use planning."

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