This article was first published on Sunday, October 30, 2005.
Midway through the Friday morning rehearsal, the 72-year-old woman who plays Carlotta, the melodrama's siren, is trying to avoid a future wardrobe malfunction. "I need my fishnet stockings in a plus size," she says, fire-red lipstick framing her warm smile. The music director, a serious woman with a serious hairdo, decided to update this production of Love Rides the Rails, which is set in the late 1800s, with some contemporary tunes, including "Live and Let Die" by that boy from the Beatles. She is chiding the chorus of ladies with cardigans draped over their shoulders for coming in too late on the refrain.
The 91-year-old who plays Dirk, the scoundrel, can dance like moon- light on water, but he is having some difficulty remembering his dastardly lines. So the director conspires to hide a cheat sheet in a folded newspaper he can carry on stage. Watching from the audience, smiling broadly as she takes it all in, is 76-year-old Eugenia Lomas, retired florist and current producer.
Love Rides the Rails is the first full-scale theater production in the history of Brooksby Village, a retirement community made up of 10 beige-and-brick apartment buildings arrayed around a man-made pond behind the Wal-Mart on the Peabody-Danvers line. In five years, Brooksby has grown to 1,400 residents, who are all 62 or older. The state Legislature just designated it as a voting sub-precinct. Over the next two years, the population should top 2,000.
Brooksby's growth mirrors the quiet explosion in Massachusetts of housing complexes for older people. There are an estimated 150,000 units of age-restricted housing in Massachusetts, in everything from retirement communities and "55-plus active adult" developments to assisted living centers and nursing homes. At least another 20,000 additional units are in the planning stages. Developers are cashing in on the graying of the state's population, while towns are green-lighting new housing that they hope won't require them to build new schools. And much more gray is on the way. Over the next 15 years, nearly 2 million Massachusetts baby boomers will turn 55, and the over-65 population will grow by 35 percent. The construction boom is unmistakable. Less obvious is the new subculture it's creating.
For all its size, Brooksby can sometimes feel as cozy as a cul-de-sac. No one walks by you without saying hello, and gossip courses through the corridors far more quickly than its fleet of 5-mile-per-hour electric wheelchairs.
Two months before its premiere, Love Rides the Rails is big news at Brooksby. "With so much talk of pills and illness, it's good to have something for people to get excited about," says Eugenia, an elegant woman who stands 5 feet 1 inch tall and has dark eyes and light-brown hair. It's not the first time that something she has been involved in has dominated the nightly discussion in Brooksby's dining rooms. But Eugenia is relieved that this time the table talk has nothing to do with her love life. She came to Brooksby four years ago for the same reasons many of the other residents made the move. She'd lost a spouse and grown tired of trying to maintain a big empty house. She was concerned about her own health and was determined not to become a burden on her children. She'd seen the value of her North Shore home appreciate beyond anything she could have imagined, and knew the proceeds from its sale could comfortably cover the price of admission and monthly maintenance costs at Brooksby for a long time.
Still, the transition was painful. Eugenia's first month here was full of tears. "I was grieving my old life," she says. Then she decided to start a new one. She taught a flower-arranging class. In time, she founded the theater group, got involved with the committee designing a stainedglass window for the interfaith chapel, and started hosting a Martha Stewart-style show on Channel 9, Brooksby's in-house TV station. Along the way, she found love.
"When I go out to the mall, I feel like an old lady," she says. "In here, I feel very young and very vibrant, and very necessary."
As the Rails rehearsal chugs along, Eugenia talks about her first kiss with the retired lobsterman Jack Mahoney. "When you're this age and a man holds you in his arms and kisses you, it's really shocking. I nearly fainted." Quickly, they became, in the language of Brooksby, an item. Eugenia was amazed to discover that she began feeling like a teenager all over again, wondering, "How should I act? How should I look?" More amazing, she noticed how everyone around her was behaving like teenagers, too. When she and Jack walked into the dining room, they could feel the eyes on them. When they got engaged, she heard all the chitchat about the size of her very large diamond. "And when we had a tiff," she says, "the whole place knew."
She learned what eventually becomes clear to most people living in a retirement community but what few outside its gates would ever suspect. The social dynamics are nothing like what people were used to in the neighborhoods and workplaces where they spent most of their years, yet strangely familiar. Life in a retirement community is a lot like being back in high school.
But more than two years later, the full force of the parallel emerged when Eugenia and Jack broke off their engagement. Sprawling Brooksby suddenly felt uncomfortably small.
JOAN CARR, BROOKSBY'S 53-YEAR-OLD executive director, travels one of the enclosed, climate-controlled walkways that connect all of the complex's buildings. She walks past the music room, past the exercise room and pool, past the woodworking shop, where the smell of pine shavings transports you right back to the ninth grade.
Or, in her case, back to her last career. Before running a retirement community, she spent nearly eight years as principal of Peabody's high school.
She finds plenty of similarities between the two jobs. The politics of dining-hall seating. The jockeying of competing activities. The romance in the hallways. (Most of it is less explicit than the lip-locking in high school, though people around Brooksby do like to talk about the now deceased ex-Marine who, in public view, would let his hands wander up his elderly girlfriend's sweater.)
"You see a lot of the cliques happening," she says, "the `in' group and the `out' group."
All those familiar archetypes from high school are still around her. The "most popular" and the outcasts, the doers and the complainers. Yet the values are different here. In high school, popularity has always been almost entirely a function of appearance and athletic ability. At Brooksby, the most popular residents are the people who make life better for everyone else. Take Joan Pappalardo, the "Carlotta" with the fishnet stockings. The warm-hearted retired nurse from Medford runs a weekly karaoke night and has a knack for drawing the wallflowers out of their seats. After her last birthday was announced on Channel 9, she received 50 cards.
When most people hear "retirement community," they think of overheated places with underfed faces, people in bathrobes shuffling to the cafeteria to nibble on saltines and drink diet ginger ale out of bent straws. But Brooksby is no nursing home. Although it has a skilled nursing facility tucked into the back of the complex, most residents have their own apartments in a setting called "independent living." They spend their days in structured recreation, whether that's feeding their lifelong mah-jongg habit or joining the theater group and discovering their inner ham. (A recent monthly activity calendar listing resident-driven activities ran 16 single-spaced pages.) At night - and around here, that starts at 4 p.m. - they get dressed up to dine.
Despite the proliferation of age-restricted housing, the number of nursing home beds in Massachusetts is actually falling, says Bonnie Heudorfer, author of a recent report by the nonprofit Citizens' Housing and Planning Association. The growth is in retirement communities and the "55-plus active adult" developments. The latter often look like any other new single-family neighborhood except the houses feature master bedroom suites on the first floor and no trikes in the driveway. Heudorfer says many towns are approving these projects based on the belief that they won't require new school spending. In reality, they tend to attract "young seniors" - people 55 to 65 - who might have otherwise grown grayer in their three-bedroom colonials but instead are persuaded to move by the promise of never again having to cut their grass or find a plumber. Who do they sell their old colonials to? Young couples with kids who need to be schooled.
Large, well-run retirement communities like Brooksby can make good business sense for the cities that host them, Heudorfer says, because they tend to draw from a wider geographical area, attract an older crowd, and handle many services inhouse rather than relying on the city. The average age of a Brooksby resident is 82. And the complex is now Peabody's second largest taxpayer.
Erickson Retirement Communities operates Brooksby and 12 other campuses like it across the country, including Linden Ponds in Hingham, which will eventually have 2,500 residents. Four more communities are in development nationally. The Baltimore-based company, which is now evaluating a site in Andover, plans to triple its roster of complexes in five years. It is capitalizing on reverse migration, where seniors who may have sampled retirement living in Florida decide they want to be closer to their grandchildren in their final years. Erickson and others are bringing Florida to where the old people are.
New arrivals face a big lifestyle adjustment. Many flourish. Some founder. Look around Brooksby and you see some people literally waiting to die. You see plenty more being reborn.
RICK MOORE AND JOANNE HICKEY sit at a window table in the earth toned Harvest Grille. Rick is a tall, 81-year-old retired banking executive who is bald and speaks in low, measured tones. Joanne is a petite, 75-year-old retired teacher who wears a barrette in her silver hair and decorates her sentences with a throaty laugh. They started sharing meals in the spring, after Rick's wife died following a long illness. As with any pair that dines together two nights in row, they immediately became as talked about as a new dessert option.
Rick had no use for the ladies who circled around him after his wife's death, approaching him in the exercise room or calling him to see if he could come by to fix their television set. (At Brooksby, single women outnumber single men by more than 3 to 1.) And Joanne had no use for the Casanovas who tried to get her eye. "I did not come to Brooksby to find a man," she says.
Rick laughs. "Well, you blew it."
Once they became an item, everything changed. Joanne hadn't been the subject of such gossip since she was a cheerleader at Wakefield High.
Ten minutes after they've been seated, the hostess directs another woman to join them. By design, there is no dining alone in Brooksby's restaurants. Every meal is an opportunity to meet someone new. In this case, the woman, 80-year-old Marie Gormalley, had already met Rick and Joanne at Mass in the chapel.
After a couple walks by their table, Marie says, "They're an item, right? He really has a high opinion of himself."
That brings Marie to her next question. "Hey, how long have you two been an item now?"
Joanne puts down her napkin and cocks her head. "You know we're married, don't you, Marie?"
"No! Well, I heard rumors."
Rick and Joanne had told no one but family before they got hitched at the beginning of the summer. Since then, word had begun to trickle out. Plenty of couples have come together at Brooksby, but they are the first to have married.
Marie asks Rick when his first wife had passed.
Rick shakes his head. "Two thousand and five."
"Oh," she says, putting her salad fork down and sitting back in her seat. "Well, you didn't waste much time, did you?" She picks her fork back up and shrugs. "Then again, we haven't got much time to waste."
With that, Marie makes her way up to the buffet. Rick and Joanne follow closely behind. All three say the food at Brooksby is quite good. There are three full-service restaurants - one that is buffet style and two that offer table service with menus - as well as a cafe and a pub.
Marie says she's mystified that as good as the food generally is, some people spend so much energy complaining about it. "One of them is sitting right over there," she says, gesturing with her head.
Joanne nods knowingly, not even needing to turn around. Asked to point her out in the dining room, Joanne says, "She has white hair and glasses." Then she bursts into laughter. "Well, that really narrows it down, doesn't it?"
ELEANOR FERRI JONES IS A 92-year-old, 89-pound force of nature who wears stylish clothes and owlish glasses and tools around campus in her motorized wheelchair. An accomplished artist and unflagging critic, she spends her days creating colorful acrylic paintings of life at Brooksby - which she calls "Elegant Alcatraz" - and firing off complaint letters, primarily to the dining services department. She keeps copies in a bulging folder. In one, she demands to know why she was charged 63 cents for a banana. In another, she calls for a detailed analysis of Brooksby's internal costs for takeout meals versus dining room dinners.
Three times, she made chocolate pudding and took it to the chef, who has so far been unwilling to switch to her recipe. When she was suspicious of the 4-ounce filet mignon promised on the menu, she brought along her postal scale to dinner; by her measurement, it weighed in at 2.25 ounces. When the chef sat with residents one night to gather feedback, Eleanor was a willing supplier. As the chicken breast was put before her, she says, "it looked like asbestos and didn't taste any better." She asked the chef, "Would you really serve this to a guest in your own house?"
She wasn't surprised to find herself the only aggressive interlocutor at the table. "There was one guy who didn't have a tongue, so he said nothing," she recalls. "There were two couples and the men there were just ass-kissers, telling him how wonderful the food was, better than the way their wives cooked. Well, if their wives were good cooks, they should have been insulted."
Eleanor stresses that she likes life at Brooksby - especially the bridge games - and many people on the staff. She even persuaded her sister to move in. But she says some people just can't accept her outspokenness. "I'm not a typical Brooksbyite, I'll tell you. They're mostly sheep, and I'm the one that rocks the boat.”
DESPITE BROOKSBY'S elaborate setup of welcoming committees and social worker visits and organized activities, some residents never really fit in. Just as in high school, certain people exist on the margins. Instead of having dinner in the restaurants, they start lining up outside the Greentree Cafe around 4 o'clock each afternoon, collecting their takeout and dining alone in their apartments.
They generally fall into one of two categories that other Brooksby residents label "the people who waited too long" and "the people who were dropped off." The first arrived after their condition had noticeably begun to slip. If you move in when you're mobile and able to join new activities and make new friends, those contacts help sustain you even if your mobility deteriorates. But if you have trouble getting around at the start, you don't have the opportunity to build your support network. The most content people at Brooksby tend to be those who regularly get off campus, despite the fact that, with a bank, medical center, post office, two convenience stores, three beauty salons, and a host of dining options, you never really have to leave.
The "dropped off" category describes people who moved in under pressure from their family. As any fan of The Sopranos knows, an arrangement like that seldom ends well. Unlike Tony's mother, none of the unwilling arrivals to Brooksby has been known to call out hits on their children. But it becomes much harder for them to adopt the right mind-set to enjoy life here.
Mind-set is key. The people who really thrive are willing to let go of the past - the identity they spent decades forging through work, family, and community - and view Brooksby as a new adventure. "Everything I've done here, I had never done before in my life," says Ede Kann, a slender 92-year-old fashion plate in multicolored pumps and tapered jeans.
The people who spend most of their day talking about what they used to do become a drag on everyone. "We're all old, we're all afflicted with one ailment or another, we're all in the same boat," says Jim Calogero, an 84-year-old retired newsman for the Globe and the Associated Press. "What you did doesn't matter, it's what you do now, and who you are now. And who you are now is one of 1,400 residents."
Those who live in the past tend to have trouble getting over the little indignities of life in a retirement community. The way they are expected to wear their name tags, with ID numbers, to dinner. And sign out if they're going to be away overnight. And open and close their doors in the morning to dislodge a little latch that signals to the security guard patrolling the corridors that they're not collapsed on the bathroom floor.
But those who really dive in, discovering new talents and interests and even loves, see their world expand in so many ways that they aren't bothered by the other ways in which it is forced to contract. At the September meeting of the Resident Advisory Council, the group's 87-year-old chairman excitedly announces that every apartment would be getting a new dust filter. He proceeds to read the full specifications of the filter. "It has control of mold, mildew, algae, fungi. . . . The adhesive is a fiberbond proprietary chemical formulation. . . ."
Many of the 150 residents in the crowd hang on his every word.
FOR EUGENIA AND JACK, dating in a fishbowl was never easy. But going through a breakup in one was much harder. Jack grew tired of acquaintances coming up to him and wanting to talk down his ex-fiancee. Eugenia felt it was "like grieving a loss all over again."
Still, Eugenia chose to focus on the relationship's upside. "It helped bring back my confidence and my pride to know that I was, even at 76, maybe still a little desirable." Jack, a 77-year-old widower, did the same, saying, "I more or less came alive when I moved in here."
After the breakup, they continued to be concerned about each other while respecting each other's privacy. They were able to do that because even though Eugenia lives in the older part of campus, she began spending more of her time in the newer part.
In time, Jack found a new love, and became engaged once again. "I'm a guy who needs a lady," he said in September.
But he would die just a few weeks later.
"Jack was very good to me," says Eugenia. She is taking her time before jumping back into a relationship - and the fishbowl. "There are a couple of men here that are interested, but I don't like to start any rumors."
WHEN YOU ASK MOST Brooksby residents their age, they're as apt as preschoolers to round up. There's an unmistakable pride in having made it this far. But when it comes to the inevitability of the aging process, people are more circumspect. Brooksby's 10 apartment buildings went up in a progression from one side of campus to the other. Sitting in the oldest clubhouse, 79-year-old Freda Shelan explains it this way: "The people on this side came in five years ago. The ones over there are just moving in, and they don't like this idea of the wheelchairs and the walkers. We didn't have many of those here when we moved in. But five years in an older person's life means a heck of a lot." When activities are held on the old side, Freda says, the new people tend not to come.
Then again, when events are held in Brooksby's nursing home, which bears the jarringly sunny name "Renaissance Gardens," residents from both the old and new sides of independent living tend to stay away. No one likes to be reminded of what lies ahead. But, deep down, nobody's fooled, says 82-year-old Dot Stewart. "We all know this is God's waiting room, and anybody who tells you differently is lying. We're all waiting for our first interview."
Does living in a retirement community help forestall the final call-up?
Brooksby's marketing campaign suggests the answer is yes, though it's a hard notion to quantify with data. Their approach stresses preventive care - Brooksby's medical center has four full-time doctors - and a raft of exercise classes. The fitness room appears to be forever in motion, albeit extremely slow motion.
Margery Silver, former associate director of the New England Centenarian Study, says people who live to see 100 tend to be sociable, adaptive, good at managing stress, and active - both physically and mentally. The communal, active life in a retirement community can help encourage those qualities, says the 73-year-old neuropsychologist, who for four years has lived in Lasell Village, a retirement community in Newton.
Still, death is omnipresent. On any suburban street, word of an elderly neighbor's passing is often buffered by news that another neighbor has just given birth or sent a daughter off to college. At Brooksby, all the life-cycle announcements involve death. Obituaries with photos are posted on the bulletin boards in the main gathering spots. Many residents confess to squinting as they walk by them every morning, hoping not to see a familiar face.
That gets to the heart of one of the most unfortunate aspects to retirement-community living: their isolation. Gerontologists have found that intergenerational contact is important to staying young. But aside from visits from their grandchildren, the main intergenerational contact that Brooksby residents have is with the high-school kids who work as waiters in the restaurants.
In some areas, notably class, the barriers that exist in much of the outside world break down beautifully here. While most retirement communities skew to the wealthy, and public elderly housing skews to the poor, Brooksby is aimed at the full spectrum of the middle class. In the restaurants each night, you can find former truck drivers dining with emeritus professors. (Depending on the size of their apartments, new in- dependent-living residents are charged a deposit of $179,000 to $466,000 per unit, which is refunded to their estates - without interest - after they die and their units have been resold. That last requirement could pose a financial risk if the retirement housing market becomes overbuilt, though right now, Brooksby units typically resell within 90 days. On top of the entrance deposit are monthly nonrefundable fees of $1,300 to $2,100, not counting extra charges for things like storage, parking spaces, and health care.)
In other areas, the divisions of the outside world have managed to replicate themselves behind these gates. Frank and Ruby Walters decided two years ago to move to Brooksby after being impressed by the amenities and the overall value. The charming couple has adjusted nicely to the place, making good friends and settling into a routine. Most nights, they eat early at the newest restaurant, called the Overlook, so Ruby can get her billiards fix after dinner in the nearby game room. But in a complex of 1,400 residents, there's something they still find mystifying.
After they had put their money down and prepared to move in, Frank asked someone at Brooksby how many other black people lived here. He was told, "You're it.”
JOANNE SITS ON THE WHITE sofa in her one-bedroom apartment, while Rick runs upstairs to his. The newly-weds are on a waiting list for a two-bedroom place in their building. Until it opens up, they shuttle between the two, sleeping in his because it has a double bed.
When she is asked what Rick's ethnic background is, she scrunches her face up. "I think he's Scottish, maybe Welsh. I'm not sure." Later, when the topic of politics arises, she says, "I think he is a Republican, though I have never asked him outright." When Rick returns, he looks on adoringly, and with evident curiosity, as Joanne tells an anecdote about her earlier life.
We all have certain expectations about old married couples, which Rick and Joanne's story subtly calls into question. We expect they should know everything about their spouses. But here is an older married couple for whom discovery is a daily occurrence. And we expect that when a husband loses his spouse and soul mate, it should take him years before he can even think about finding love again.
Friends reach for the same word - heroic - when they describe Rick's devotion to his first wife, Pat, during the years when Parkinson's was taking her away. He says it was only possible because of the setup at Brooksby, where residents whose health is failing can move to the assisted living or nursing home units on campus while their spouses can remain in independent living, and stay connected to both worlds. There's something very sensible and humane about this setup.
Rick and Joanne met one January evening when a group of people gathered outside the dining room were chatting about a Notre Dame-Boston College basketball game. By then, Pat had been in the nursing home for more than a year, and, as her condition deteriorated, Rick was forced to request hospice care. He spent every day with her. When she died in March, he says, "I pretty much collapsed."
The combination of grief and fatigue was so potent that he began to understand why so many elderly widowers retreat into a world of sitting at home alone all day watching TV. But a few weeks after his wife's death, he ran into Joanne and asked her to dinner. They had such a good time that he asked her to join him again the next night.
That, of course, triggered the gossip machine. But at that point Rick and Joanne were just enjoying each other's company. They were both surprised when romance blossomed - and by how quickly it happened. Because they are both strict Catholics (Joanne's first marriage was annulled), they knew what they would do.
"There was no hanky-panky - none at all," Joanne says.
"I would say the temptations were there," Rick says.
"Oh, of course. Some people say, `Try before you buy' - not in my world."
Four months after his wife died, Rick married Joanne.
"A lot of people look and they say, `Only four months and they're married!' " Rick says. "What they don't understand is that it was really a year and four months. My wife really did die for all intents and purposes in '04. It was just sustaining her after that, which became my life."
"And he'd been grieving that whole time," Joanne says. "I think anybody with any sense would understand that."
But they don't let these problems of perception bother them too much. After all, the Brooksby community that at times makes their relationship complicated is the same one that made it possible.
IT'S THE LAST SATURDAY night in September, and Brooksby is decked out for the prom. Actually, it's called the Gala, and there are no wrist corsages or limousines. But there's no mistaking that this is the social event of the year. Hundreds of formally dressed attendees ride in shuttle buses from one side of the campus to the banquet room on the other.
Eugenia, wearing a wine-colored two-piece number, arrives early to check on her creations. In addition to producing Love Rides the Rails, which will be staged in the same banquet room, the retired florist had turned out 60 centerpieces capturing the gala's theme of "Shanghai Nights."
Eugenia's date - she stresses that they're just friends - is a husky 78-year-old named George Fall. Eventually, they are directed to a table in the corner as a flutist plays the theme from Taxi.
The party is also going on upstairs in the Overlook. Residents complained that last year's Gala was too crowded, so organizers decided this time to have dining and dancing on two levels, with two live bands. As she works both rooms, executive director Joan Carr explains why this event is more fun than all those high school proms she oversaw. "I don't have to search corsage boxes and hair-spray bottles for smuggled liquor."
Upstairs, a 4-foot-10 woman with reddish hair and a lime-green dress moves to the beat of Sinatra as she makes her way back from the buffet line carrying a full plate. Her name is Lillian Cohen, she is in her 80s, and she wears a smile so wide that you'd think this really is her first prom. She sits long enough to nibble at her food before shaking her way out to the dance floor. Her smile will not fade the whole night.
At the table she left, an 84-year-old blonde sits with two friends, keeping a running commentary of the events on the dance floor. "We like to watch to see who's going with who," she says. "We look for rings." And outfits. "I see a lot of `mother-of-the-bride' dresses here tonight."
The eight-piece band picks up the tempo, as Sinatra gives way to Donna Summer. Lillian in lime green shows no signs of tiring.
"She's so cute," says the blonde, "but she's gonna have a lot of aches tomorrow."
Two buffet lines, each staffed with eight teenage servers, are positioned on opposite sides of the dance floor. As the band kicks up the tempo to Tina Turner's "Proud Mary," the kids behind one line start grooving in unison. Across the room, the other line takes the bait, led by a 16-year-old wearing a red Chinese dress and a Vietnamese straw hat that she borrowed from a friend.
The competition energizes the crowd on the dance floor, which begins to worry the blonde. "There's going to be a couple of hips dislocated here tonight."
During the next song, an elderly woman falls down flat on the dance floor. "I told you," the blonde says. Fortunately, the woman quickly gets back on her feet.
As the buffet line dance-off intensifies to "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)," a sterno container under a chafing dish begins to smoke. One of the servers breaks from the dance line to tend to it, but the others keep on rolling.
The scene downstairs is far more subdued. People nosh on a bounty of shrimp arranged around a giant dragon ice sculpture. Eugenia loves to dance, and, after George sits down, she smiles and says, "I've got to find another man." She does a spirited Copacabana with the husband of her friend and then a smooth waltz with a man in a white dinner jacket.
Just before 11 p.m., the dance floor downstairs is empty except for a pair of actual high-school sweethearts, heavy on the hair gel, slow-dancing in their wait-staff uniforms.
"Let's go upstairs," Eugenia tells George. She dances and hums all the way out of the banquet room and into the elevator.
A minute later, the elevator opens on the second floor to the sounds of "New York, New York." Eugenia flashes a broad smile as she soaks up the scene. It's 11 o'clock on a Saturday night, and she and hundreds like her are living life. She rushes onto the packed dance floor and is immediately pulled into a kick line. Turning to the woman next to her, she joins the chorus without missing a beat. "I'll make a brand new start of it . . .