Read more from Slate’s Geezers Issue.
In her “Human Guinea Pig” column, Emily Yoffe does things that readers are too shy—or too well-adjusted—to try themselves. She’s been a street musician, a beauty pageant contestant, and a children’s party entertainer. During the summer of 2006, she tried to preview what old age would be like by checking herself into Leisure World, a retirement community. Her original article is reprinted below.
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.)
Next I meet a woman universally known as Big Red. She is Gwen Leannarda, 83, tall and slender with orange-sherbet hair. She moved to Leisure World 16 years ago because of increasing crime in her old neighborhood; crime is one of the best friends of developers of active-adult communities. Big Red spent the afternoon rehearsing for the Leisure World production of Guys and Dolls, and now her knees are paying her back, she says.
She says she’s got a pair of redheads I should meet, the twins, Doris and Dorothy Bell, 82. The Bells spent their careers working together as secretaries at the phone company and now share an apartment at Leisure World. “We’re two old maids,” Dorothy says. They’ve been here for three years, and their favorite event is the sing-along at the bar on Friday nights. Dorothy says the pianist plays “Me and My Shadow” and she and Doris act it out.
“You two keep the place open until 9!” says a friend sitting nearby.
In his delightful book, Early Bird, Rodney Rothman tries retirement in a Florida active-adult community while still in his 20s, and he describes his difficulties mastering the hard-core bingo played with multiple cards and different patterns. When the Leisure World game starts, everyone falls silent and concentrates on their boards—you play a minimum of three at a time, although some players have nine going at once. It starts off easy, with a bingo requiring a straight line of winning numbers, but then the caller announces a “specialty” game. Addie explains that it’s an “inside picture frame with four corners.” She advises me to fill in my card only when the number matches the pattern, but I quickly lose track of the design, to my elders’ delight.
“Emily, don’t get mixed up,” Ann advises after seeing my mess. “They tax our brains here!”
Bingo lasts for two hours, and, as with any sporting event, it’s both relaxing and stressful. But there’s no grasping the Leisure World experience without taking a road trip with the ladies.
Traveling is as much a part of the active-adult lifestyle as having the podiatrist on speed dial. In her 18 years at Leisure World, Addie has been on 18 cruises. She has taken bus trips to Chicago and Las Vegas. And, of course, she makes regular trips to East Coast casinos. Almost every Friday morning, she, Ann, and Charlotte take a $29, 8-hour round-trip bus to Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J. They are such regulars that the Eyre bus company makes a special Leisure World stop just to pick up the three of them.
They agree to let me join them on their Trump run. The bus picks us up just before 9 a.m. outside Leisure World. Everyone packs a lunch to eat on the bus, because when we arrive at 1:00 p.m. we only have six hours to gamble—interrupted by a 3 p.m. dinner at the buffet—before boarding the bus back home at 7:15 p.m.
As the bus approaches Trump Plaza, Addie starts opening various pockets and zippers in her purse. Each is stuffed with coupons for free play and free food. I follow Addie to a machine where she turns in her coupons for vouchers—the casino has given her $45! I was given a coupon on the bus that I trade in for a $20 voucher. Then Addie tells me we have to stop at a computer kiosk and enter a sweepstakes that promises everyone wins something. I know I will never win the sweepstakes, and I have no desire to drag home whatever dreck The Donald is giving away, so I decline to press the button, much to her astonishment. A few minutes later Ann comes up holding a large, stuffed bear.
“Did you get your bear yet?” she asks me.
Addie explains I have refused to enter the sweepstakes.
“It’s free!” Ann almost shrieks at me, holding out the bear. “Look, it’s adorable. It’s musical. I’ve got great-grandchildren but I might keep it for myself.” I give in, enter the sweepstakes, then follow Addie to the end of the casino to retrieve our bears. Finally, it’s time to play, and that means slots. Or rather, penny slots—the cheapest games in the house. Addie explains that to get some bang for my pennies, I should play two lines at a time, meaning 18 cents per spin. I follow her advice and in a matter of minutes my $20 has turned into $14.89. While Addie goes off to cash in some more coupons she has found, I hop to the dollar slots, where I instantly lose $5. I rush back to the penny slots before she can see me. I finish dumping what’s left of my $20 into the slots and put in $10 more. Fortunately, it is now 3 p.m. and we all meet and head for the buffet. We have to get there before 3:30, when the price jumps from $15.95 plus tax to $18.95 plus tax.
It is no surprise that Addie has coupons for this, too—a “buy one get one free” and a voucher. She tries to parlay this into a meal for herself and Charlotte, but the cashier demands that Addie pay full price for one, much to her confusion. But when we get into the buffet and show our tickets, the server says we’ve been overcharged. Just as Addie thought, and she goes back to the cashier to straighten it out. Addie comes back in and says a supervisor is looking into it, and she finally gets to eat. But when we get back outside, the supervisor insists that Addie has been charged correctly. This makes no sense given all her coupons and the observation of the server. Forty minutes and three supervisors later, Addie gets $8.60 back but is warned that she can’t again combine a “buy one get one free” coupon and a voucher for the same meal.
With time running out, it’s back to the penny slots. Addie and I bounce around several machines unluckily, until I sit down at one and stick in yet another $20 bill. This machine is hot. I follow Addie’s advice, playing my 18 cents, and while I frequently lose, I also regularly hit enough to win $1.70, even $3.60 at a time. I sit fixed at this machine for more than an hour. I can barely pull myself away—I’m up $1.92!—but it’s bus departure time.
At first I thought playing penny slots was faintly ridiculous—who cares about winning or losing when you’re talking about pennies? But now I understand. When you’re deep into the active-adult part of your life, after your children are raised, your career is over, and your spouse is buried, the purpose of the slot machine is not to take your money, but your time.
Addie and I meet up and head to the bus. She’s given back the $45 to the casino, plus $10 of her own money. But, as she points out, it’s less than she would spend at a dinner theater and she’s had more fun. On the bus ride home I ask Addie if she ever worries about her future. She doesn’t. “This is a happy time of my life. If I can’t take care of myself anymore, my daughter says I can move in with her.” And when it’s all over, she’s donating her body to science.
At 11 p.m., right around their usual bedtime, we’re back at Leisure World. The three women pile into Addie’s Chevy Blazer for the short ride to their condos. As they pull off, Ann calls out the window at me, “Bye, kiddo!” I have never felt so young.