A different world

Cheerleaders

Alistair Kleebauer takes a closer look at documentary Some Kind of Heaven
to find out what UK developers and operators can learn
from retirement communities in the US

Golf carts trundle along palm-tree lined paths, town squares bustle with get-fit classes and dance parties and swimming pools glisten in what you would imagine is never-ending sun.

This is The Villages in Florida, America’s largest retirement community and home to around 130,000 over-55s. Although with its Main Street aesthetic and vast array of entertainment, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in nearby Disney World.

It is the subject of the documentary Some Kind of Heaven, recently released in the UK, which focuses on a handful of its residents to see if reality tallies with the pristine surface image1.

They include Barbara, who is coming to her terms with her husband’s death, and Dennis, who lives in his van on the grounds while cruising its nightspots hoping to pick up a wealthy woman.

There is also Annie and Reggie, married for 47 years but struggling with Reggie’s erratic lifestyle including using drugs to find spiritual fulfilment and eventually being arrested for cocaine possession.

A retirement community the size of The Villages is not likely here, but the documentary will still make interesting viewing for those in the UK’s sector.

That is because it reveals challenging and universal themes around ageing, loneliness and mortality.

Golfing at The Villages
Opportunity for growth

Inspired Villages group sales and marketing director James Cobb visited the place around 20 years ago and thinks it and the film are extraordinary.

With the UK retirement living market still accounting for just 0.8% of the housing supply for over-65s, compared to 6% in the US, there is clearly room for growth here.

Inspired Villages plans 28 more developments to take them to 8,000 homes for 12,500 residents.

But Cobb said that when he visited The Villages, they were building 400 homes a month. He added: ‘That’s more than two-and-a-half of our villages they were building every month.

‘We’re looking to build up to four villages a year. It’s a totally different thing.’

After watching the film, Gareth Lyon, the head of policy and communications at the Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), said: ‘I mean to some extent it looks like a sort of Swiftian satire of what the retirement villages sector is like in other countries.

‘We all know that the Americans like to do things bigger and better, don’t they?’

The residents in Some Kind of Heaven benefit from every conceivable service and activity, including banks, ten-pin bowling lanes, a performing arts theatre, hot air balloon rides and martial arts classes.

As Annie remarked in the film: ‘At first, it was like a vacation every day. But it is not the real world. We live in a bubble.’

Lyon said older people in the UK do not want to be cut off from everyone else. ‘More and more of the successful retirement communities in the UK are in towns or on the edge of towns where people can interact with the wider community,’ he said.

‘They’re increasingly likely to make their facilities a hub for the wider community rather than cut off as part of this sprawling metropolis.

Synchronised swimming and buckets of margaritas… that’s first quarter of your life stuff

Professor June Andrews, an older people’s care expert who directed Stirling University’s dementia services development centre for a decade, contrasted The Villages with McCarthy

Stone retirement homes in the Edinburgh region where residents can easily make their way into the city.

She said: ‘If the location is in a city, then you’ve got the choice of joining swimming clubs or playing golf or going to the theatre, whatever.

‘It doesn’t all have to be artificially created in a kind of mall in the middle of a conglomeration of houses.’

She added that lots of people would not be satisfied with the seemingly homogenous nature of The Villages’ population, which, judging by the film, is made up of older, rich, white people.

Keeping connected

Inspired Villages works to reinstate connections between older and younger people, according to Cobb.

He said: ‘We have external memberships, and we have families that actually enjoy visiting their grandparents or parents. We have groups, we do a lot of work with schools. During the pandemic, we introduced pen pal schemes.

‘That intergenerational aspect means our villages are not disconnected from the real world and I got the impression from The Villages being so large, that they were.’

The film presents an older generation with no intention of slowing down with montages of them energetically rowing on a lake or taking part in synchronised swimming and later partying in the retirement community’s clubs.

Prof Andrews said: ‘The thing that was quite significant about the American model that was shown, and I’ve seen that model before, is it’s very like a holiday camp with a lot of emphasis on activities, cheerleading, swimming, competitions, dance.’

She compared it to MHA’s Auchlochan Garden Village retirement community in Scotland’s central belt that she said does have events like Christmas and Halloween parties but not the need for such full-on entertainment as States-side.

The inverse of The Villages’ party scenes is residents struggling with loneliness, most clearly represented in the film by Barbara.

She remarks that the place hasn’t been ‘the fantasy land’ she thought it would be.
There seems to be a vibrant dating scene that Barbara finds daunting, but she is attracted to a man called Lynn, well-known for his margaritas which he makes by the gallon.

Lyon said: ‘Barbara was clearly missing the northeast of America where she was from and a few of the others talked about missing home or wishing a return home.’

Cobb said: ‘There was a very interesting comment in the film when someone said “it’s hard to be alone in The Villages”. I took that as a negative. It’s so large that you can be lonely in The Villages.

‘We have 150 properties on average, so just over 200 residents. That’s the community of a small English village and everyone knows everyone and they all support each other and that’s how you tackle loneliness.’

Dennis and his van

The film unsurprisingly focuses on people with conflict in their lives but, watching it, you suspect that in the background are lots of people happily going about their days and enjoying living there.

Residents say that you go there to live ‘not to pass away’ and that you can feel younger by living there.

Cobb said: ‘I think the US attitude, if we can learn anything from this, is that it’s more positive and why not be positive about your later years? Because they can and they should be the best years of your life.

‘We have residents that would say these are the best years of their lives.’

Prof Andrews, however, wondered if the constant entertainment and striving for fun seen in Some Kind of Heaven hid an unwillingness to accept realities about ageing and mortality.

She said: ‘Synchronised swimming and buckets of margaritas… that’s first quarter of your life stuff. And there are other really exciting and interesting things that you can do in the last quarter of your life.

‘That frenetic trying to behave as if you are a teenager taking drugs and getting off with women and all the rest of it, maybe that’s not natural? Maybe it is natural to slow down and do different things?’

Some Kind of Heaven is available on streaming services.