Why acting your age is a thing of the past

  • Kendrick Brinson / Luceo for TIME

    Synchronized swimmers, all residents of the first Sun City community, prepare for a performance

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    It's a result that goes some way toward explaining the extraordinary sense of well-being that radiates from the residents of Sun City Shadow Hills, a community for "active adults aged 55 and better" in California's Coachella Valley, where retirement has been successfully reimagined not as a cessation of work but as a long whirl of absorbing activity.

    A construction magnate named Del Webb opened the first Sun City community in Arizona in 1960. "An old fellow came up to me once with tears in his eyes and thanked me for building Sun City," recounted Webb, interviewed for a 1962 TIME cover story . "He said he was planning to spend the happiest 40 years of his life there." Webb died in 1974, but his creation lives on. There are now more than 50 Sun Cities dotted across America. Sun City Shadow Hills, launched in 2004, is among the newest. Driving along its flawless red macadam streets in yellow sunshine beneath unrealistically blue skies, you start to wonder if you've strayed onto a back lot at a Hollywood studio. Distant figures shimmer in the heat haze on the fairway, and a golf buggy hums along a perimeter road, but the sidewalks are empty. Then you ring the doorbell at Patti and Phil Wolff's house and discover a fair chunk of Sun City's boisterous population ensconced in their large open-plan kitchen. At the back of the house, there's a lush garden their next-door neighbor describes as "bitchin'," and a barbecue sends aromatic smoke signals to the rest of the community that one of Patti's famous meals will shortly be served. Patti, 63, describes one of her most ambitious catering challenges: a 2010 dinner-dance that drew 81 guests, organized by the Rainbow Club, the community's gay and lesbian social club. "When they told me what it was going to cost per person just for the food, I said, 'Oh, come on, I can do that for half. And give you choices,'" she says.

    Her husband Phil, also 63, is a different kind of dynamo. Connected to the mains, he could power his whole street and its air-conditioned residences and 24-hour sprinkler systems. He plays softball, is a regular at the state-of-the-art gym at Sun City's 35,000-sq.-ft. (3,250 sq m) Montecito Clubhouse and indulges a passion for cycling, racking up as many as 175 miles (280 km) per week. "Basically, he does so many things that I hardly see him," says Patti. "It's like if he was back at work again."

    The couple's action-packed lifestyle comes thanks to their erstwhile employer, telecom company Pacific Bell, which featherbedded them into early retirement. Several of the friends around their table still work. Larry Johnson, 63, once the manager of a funeral home in Oregon, these days offers a similar service for pets, assisted by his partner Bruce Atkinson, 66. "Hundreds of people [in the area] have old dogs and cats, and eventually those dogs and cats will die, so Larry gets a lot of business," says Atkinson.

    The same forces that keep Johnson's business ticking will eventually disrupt the idyll that he and his friends have built. For the moment, their community offers the ideal support network for widows and widowers, but as their numbers inevitably swell, the network will contract. On a recent night out at another Sun City development called Palm Desert, Johnson and Atkinson caught an uncomfortable glimpse of the future. "We were standing there, and we both made the comment, 'God, these are really old people,'" says Atkinson. Palm Desert opened 12 years before Shadow Hills; the average age of its residents is higher. And because ownership of Sun City properties is restricted to the 55-pluses, the communities age and risk dying off together. Yet it is the absence of young people that — for a while, at least — revitalizes Sun City residents, permitting a powerful illusion of agelessness. Shielded like Langer's test subjects from reminders of their chronological age, they become amortal.

    Keeping On Keeping On
    It's a startling statistic: the fastest-growing segment of the world population is the very old, with the number of centenarians projected to reach nearly 6 million by 2050. But as John F. Kennedy observed in a 1963 address to Congress, "it is not enough for a great nation merely to have added new years to life. Our objective must be to add new life to those years." Life spans have lengthened; health spans have not kept pace. Genes and luck play a role in how we age. Lifestyle and the wealth required to enhance it are also key factors. Science may yet devise an elixir that allows us all to be Mick Jaggers, doing what we like, seemingly indefinitely and without penalty. But the swelling ranks of amortals who already assume it's possible to keep on living agelessly may find themselves instead subsumed into another phenomenon of our times: the living death before death, sometimes lasting decades, that increased longevity without extended vitality represents.

    Yet the trend of amortality is accelerating: you can't just close your eyes and wish us back in Kansas among kindly folk who obligingly conform to outdated expectations of age. Look around our virtual Vegases and you'll see cause for optimism too. Amortals, as they advance in years, hold the key to transforming perceptions by showing what older people can do and showing older people what they can be. They're inclined to keep working, rather than vegetating. They may not age gracefully, but nor do they trade their sense of adventure for dignity. Thanks to amortality, our graying world may not prove too gray a place.

    Adapted from Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly by Catherine Mayer, © 2011. Published in the U.K. by Vermilion

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