Is Age Segregation for the Elderly good?

An Age-Segregated Dream

In New York in the 1970s, retirees were finding that “life wasn’t so beautiful and the winters were cold,” says an elderly voice in the opening minutes of “Kings Point,” a new documentary. “They ran away. They ran to Florida.”

For a $1,500 down payment, these refugees could buy a condo in a big pink stucco complex in Delray Beach called Kings Point, a predominantly Jewish world of shuffleboard and mah-jongg, line dancing and poolside lolling. Among them were Ida and Nat Gilman, a bank teller and a salesman who left Brooklyn in 1978.

“To them, this was a little piece of the American dream,” said their granddaughter Sari Gilman, a frequent visitor. As a child, Kings Point felt “like summer camp for old people.”

From 1975 to 1980, according to the Census Bureau, more than half a million people over age 55 moved to Florida. Now Ms. Gilman, 43, an experienced film editor making her directorial debut, shows what’s happened since. Following a cast of five characters over a decade, she packs a lot of questions and dilemmas into a half-hour film.

For instance, is retiring far from family and familiar surroundings such a great idea as the years pass? Some residents profess happiness; others confess (to the camera, though often not to one another) to anxiety about their futures. Ida Gilman – who’s not a character in the film – had good years, even after Nat died. “She had a lot of freedom down there and enjoyed it for a very long time,” her granddaughter said. But eventually, she couldn’t live alone and returned to an assisted living community near her family in Westchester County, north of New York City, where she died at 93.

“The benefits of the age-segregated community seemed, in the end, to be a liability,” Sari Gilman said. As she spent time shooting at Kings Point, she learned that “there was a bit of a Darwinian bent to social life there. If you had your health, you were popular. If your health started to fail, there were whispers around the pool: ‘Ida’s going down.’ ”

The women (mostly) in her film acknowledge that they’re unlikely to be visited or included if they’re sick, that the friends they play canasta with may not even want to hear about their ailments, since they have plenty of their own. “I don’t think it was out of malice. It was out of fear,” Ms. Gilman said.

Her film, made for $150,000, shows that undercurrent of sadness in this once-bustling development, coupled with a certain gallant refusal to knuckle under to loss.

A viewer sometimes wants to ask Gert and Jane and Mollie, as they contemplate the struggles ahead, “What did you think was going to happen?” Kings Point’s builders never considered the need for elevators to the second-floor apartments, for instance, a problem The New York Times reported on some years back — or maybe they did and dropped the idea as too expensive or too depressing. These residents were going to remain nimble forever, apparently.

That question occurred to Ms. Gilman, too, and when she asked her subjects, more delicately, about the future they envisioned when they escaped to Florida, they all replied, “I never thought I’d live this long.”

You can see why, given the great decline in deaths from heart attacks and strokes over a few decades. But we no longer have that excuse. We know that a growing number of older adults will live well into their 80s and 90s, and that two-thirds of them eventually will need help with routine daily activities.

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