Moving into an age-restricted community made me realize: I’m officially old. And I’m okay with it.
I live in — shudder — a 55-and-over community. Yes, I’ve taken up residence in the used car lot of life, among the other heaps far past their prime, long-forgotten junkers, their glory days lost in the rear-view mirror. At least, that’s how I used to look at it.
When I moved to Las Vegas in 2012, there was no way I saw myself as someone who was about to turn 55. Looking in the mirror, I ignored the encroaching wrinkles and age spots, and fooled myself into seeing a 35ish hepcat, still on his game.
Married with no kids, I was a journalist, a storyteller, a self-proclaimed raconteur-with-attitude who had traveled the world in pursuit of the story — and I wasn’t done yet. I came here to work as a national reporter for the L.A. Times, and needed to live near McCarran because the job required lots of last-minute travel.
In 2012, the housing market was just starting to heat up again after its long descent, and I knew I had to act fast. I considered a condo off the Strip, then a Downtown loft where I could live among the coffeehouse-and-craft-brew hipsters, that tribe to which I still claimed membership.
There was (sigh) another option: a house in the suburbs. I saw a lot of places, mostly in Henderson. When the real estate agent suggested that we drive higher into the foothills to a retirement community, I resisted. But in the end, we found a place I knew was the one: Perfect price, awesome floor plan, pool and jacuzzi in a manicured backyard, even a casita I could use as my office.
The bad news: It was in Old Peopleville — Sun City Anthem, where 12,500 retirees live in a massive master-planned community. I sucked up my pride and signed on the dotted line — barely a month after I’d officially turned 55.
I’ll admit, I copped an attitude at first. These people were hardly my tribe. I made jokes about the little old ladies who look through the steering wheel as they careen around Anthem Parkway. When my nieces came to visit from Los Angeles, I pointed out other drivers on the road as old farts and old bats — my Lenny Bruce moment, being purposefully caustic, trying to evoke a response.
It worked. My 12-year-old niece, Isabel, turned to me.
“What’s that make you then, Uncle John?”
She had me; everyone could see that. Everyone except me.
I had joined a gym on Eastern Avenue, where most members were in their 20s. One day, my wife (who lives in San Francisco for work) said, “Why don’t you work out at the gym in your community? You could meet some new friends.” I scoffed. Working out among 20-somethings gave me energy — I needed my young people’s gym.
Then one day, without time to schlep down Eastern Avenue, I reluctantly hit the gym at Sun City Anthem. And boom — I went from being one of the oldest people at the gym to one of the youngest. I never went back to the other place.
It was a superficial comfort, but it triggered something else: I began to open my eyes and actually see my neighbors — and they’re not as alien or otherworldly as I thought. As I huffed and puffed on the elliptical, I saw men and women 25 years my senior coming in every day. One man could hardly walk; he showed up with a cane and got on the treadmill. It looked like he was barely moving. But I could see the effort etched on his face. It was heroic. At the gym and elsewhere in the community, I got to know a few folks, and you know what I found? That people don’t change all that much, even when they get older. They’re essentially the same personalities as when they were kicking up their heels in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Like my neighbor Charlie, a Minnesota transplant who loves talking politics at his 7 a.m. coffee klatch — he hasn’t stopped being an early-morning social animal and armchair pundit just because he’s retired. And there’s Lisa, a former Vegas showgirl who, at 80, still has the same sassy demeanor and sexy, searching eyes she had when she wore all that glitter.
I suppose it helps that I was, fortunately, raised to see the elderly not as castoffs. I’ve visited extended family in Italy, where the institution of the three-generation household is going strong. My wife is Chinese, a culture in which grandparents, parents and children living together is still a common arrangement.
I used to visit my older sister, who worked as an aide in an upscale retirement home in Orange County. I’d come home on visits from reporting assignments in Asia, and she would take me around to meet the residents. Their backgrounds were amazing: big-time corporate lawyers, actors, chemists, poets. But now, they were all relegated to being just old. Nobody asked them about their achievements, their experiences. The aides knocked on the door to alert them to dinner hour, and after that, they were solved problems until the next feed time.
It sort of pissed me off back then. But I’d forgotten all about that when I moved to Sun City. My shtick with my nieces about old farts and bats was, I suppose, a defense mechanism against facing the reality of getting old. It’s a fact and process I’m learning to accept as I live it myself: Now I’m 60, a number our culture tells us is over the hill, no longer on the team, old. But the longer I live in my 55-plus community, the more I feel I belong here, the more I fit in.
The other day, I was taking my usual walk when I was passed by a man half my age. He was running, dripping sweat. I was there once. I used to road-bike 70 miles in an afternoon. But not anymore. These days, I walk, a pursuit that’s more my speed.
I let the younger guy go on ahead, content with my own pace. Then I encountered a gray-haired woman walking her dog. She remarked on the gorgeous afternoon, which was true, and I smiled. She was one of my tribe.