The Future of Aging Just Might Be in Margaritaville

By Kim Tingley

The Tech And Design Issue
Concept by Delcan & Company. Photo illustration by Jamie Chung. Prop styling by Pink Sparrow.

Off a vacant stretch of highway in Daytona Beach, Fla., a line began to form outside the sales center for the first Latitude Margaritaville “55 and better” community. Those waiting dragged folding chairs, coolers, tents and dog-eared brochures featuring numbered sites that, in just over 24 hours, they could stake a claim to for a $10,000 deposit. The mood, shortly after 8 a.m. one Sunday last November, was festive, ecstatic even. Drinks flowed, pizza appeared, a steel-drum band played into the balmy night. Some neighbors in the 300-person queue liked each other so much that they decided to become actual neighbors, switching their site choices to live closer together. A sense of destiny seemed to guide many of their decisions. Karen Goodwin, 55, a homemaker, had won the exact amount of the down payment a few weeks earlier in a Domino’s sweepstakes. Matt Kelly, 62, a retired firefighter, had been chipping ice off his shingles in Orange County, N.Y., when a chunk broke loose in the shape of the Sunshine State, which he took as a sign.

“I never thought I’d be in a 55-plus community,” Ruth Kelly, 61, a former real estate agent and Matt’s wife, said the following September. The three of us were sitting at a table in the dining room of the home the Kellys had secured on Cool Breeze Drive, a single-family unit with the L-shaped lanai that Ruth had had her eye on. “Being in real estate, I didn’t think I would do what we did, wait in line for 11 hours. I always told my customers: ‘Never buy in Phase 1. Never buy sight-unseen.’ I did all of that. But I never once had doubt. Not once did I feel that way. It was meant to be, I really believe that.”

Outside, under an endless blue sky, a parade of trucks bore the trappings of former homes from as far away as Hawaii, Canada and El Salvador to sorbet-colored dwellings with emerald green lawns. At the entrance to the gated enclave, past a “Barkaritaville” dog park, beeping excavators moved dirt around what would soon be a town-square for concerts and dancing, surrounded by a state-of-the-art workout center, a restaurant and a walk-in pool with cabanas and a bar. It was impossible to stand on their cement foundations — which I had, in fact, done that morning — and not see a frontier settlement being carved into an expanse of subtropical wetland. The real frontier here, though, was not the surrounding wilderness but a hitherto uncolonized stretch of time: the multiple decades that more and more Americans can expect to live in better and better health after they retire. What will these pioneers do? Who will they become? And how will that, in turn, alter the course of human history?

To be sure, Margaritaville is not representative of how most of us will spend our retirement years. Fewer than 14 percent of Americans 75 and older occupy some form of senior housing today. Three-quarters of those over 50 say they would prefer not to move at all. And untold numbers of seniors who might need or want to enter an age-restricted or assisted-living community won’t be able to afford to do so; 30 percent of those 65 and older have an annual income below $23,000, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The least-expensive homes in Margaritaville are more than 10 times that, before the monthly association fee of roughly $200 — and those sums don’t include meals or care. (For statewide comparison, a private room in a skilled-nursing facility has a median cost of $9,000 per month, and in an assisted-living residence, $3,500 per month, according to LeadingAge Florida, an association of elder-care organizations. Continuing-care communities that guarantee all levels of lifetime care on-site have charges that range from $2,500 to $5,400 per month, plus substantial entry fees.)

Like all pioneer settlements, however, Margaritaville is not just a place but an idea — an imagined utopia, in this case inspired by a Jimmy Buffett song’s reference to a frozen cocktail. Historically, such extreme aspirational-lifestyle experiments have had an outsize influence on our cultural imagination: It would be hard to call Jamestown, one cradle of our democracy, a practical project; same goes for the squalid boomtowns of the Gold Rush, which helped define the American dream. What intrigued me about Margaritaville was the specificity of its promise — a retirement based on music Buffett has described as “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll” — and the fact that it is still under construction. I could actually meet the early colonists as they went about pursuing their vision.

Gaining access to Margaritaville as a reporter had not been easy; several feet away, politely pretending not to listen to my conversation with the Kellys, was a Margaritaville brand ambassador and two public relations specialists for Minto Communities, the developer (Latitude Margaritaville is their collaboration). My visit had been approved at the highest corporate levels and my subjects preselected and scheduled in 30-minute time slots. All brands cultivate their image, but building communities for seniors typically requires a special degree of staging. “Architects are basically set designers,” David Dillard, the president of D2 Architecture, a senior-housing firm, told me. “We fight to diminish any icons of this being a senior place. We literally hide things. Inside the community — this is part of our struggle — you don’t want to see your future.”

Or at least not the part that includes inevitable death, possibly preceded by mental or bodily deterioration. The problem is that in order to avoid considering those eventualities, we tend to avert our collective gaze from the future altogether — and in doing so, risk missing our opportunity to stage a more enjoyable and meaningful one. Consequently, our concept of senior housing is often dystopic: a quarantining of those who can no longer care for themselves and are of no “use” to society. To purchase a home in Margaritaville, on the other hand, is to aggressively reimagine the aging process as a ticket to an island paradise, which may prove to be willfully naïve or ingeniously farsighted — or both.

If you make it to your 65th birthday in the U.S. today, you can expect about 20 more years and have a good chance at 30. The fastest-growing segment of the population, in fact, is between the ages of 85 and 94. But longevity alone will not transform senior housing, an industry that experts warn is about to experience a revolution for which it is ill prepared. The truly transformative trend is about proportions. The Census Bureau projects that in 2034, for the first time ever, people 65 and older will outnumber those under 18. Americans are living longer and having fewer children, and fewer immigrants are showing up.

A similar demographic shift is underway around the globe, and no one seems to have a solid plan for addressing it. “It really comes down to two questions: Where are we going to live, and who is going to take care of us?” says Andrew Carle, founding director of the program in senior-housing administration at George Mason University. “The rapidly aging worldwide population will affect us more than global warming, I think. It’s the seminal event of the 21st century.” As Carle and many others see it, there are only two possible answers, which will need to be deployed in tandem to avoid a social and economic collapse: first, develop technology that will help seniors live independently longer, and second, persuade them to congregate so that they can be cared for more effectively, by humans or robots or both. The latter will be a more difficult sell than it was for those in the “silent generation,” who have been loath to complain as long as they feel reasonably safe and comfortable. Baby boomers came of age in the consumer culture of the 1950s and are comparison shoppers who expect to have agency and choice. “We’re the same generation that invented 14 flavors of Coca-Cola,” Carle says. “So we want more flavors. We’ve blown up the portfolio of every product we’ve touched.”

In addition to senior communities organized around faith, military service and civic fraternities, there are now retirement cruise ships being planned for the superwealthy and floating condos for presale that will go up and down the Mississippi. The Villages, outside Orlando, has 52 golf courses and a new enrichment program that offers courses ranging from scuba diving to current affairs. Increasingly developers are partnering with schools like Duke and the University of Florida; Arizona State University recently broke ground on a 20-story senior-living facility it calls “the world’s coolest dorm.” “There’s a lot of experimentation with models,” Bob Kramer, the founder of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, told me. “There’s no model that’s really caught on yet.” (A proposed nudist community has fallen through.) But existing facilities have been notoriously slow to innovate. “Change things!” David Dillard says. “Senior housing are sluggards in that respect.”

What needs remodeling can be depressingly obvious: Cafeterias and set mealtimes are out; multiple restaurants, from fine dining to deli takeout, are in. But the bigger question is whether redesigning the physical environment where seniors live can redefine the way we experience aging itself. Biologically speaking, we know very little about what aging is or how it works. It isn’t fatal, technically, but in developed countries it is the greatest risk factor for cancer, dementia and heart disease. It is a universal experience across the animal kingdom, one that unfolds uniquely in each individual. And while we think of other life phases as having a particular purpose — childhood is about growing and learning; adulthood is about procreating and producing — we have not defined old age as clearly. (In fact, apart from humans, only a few species of cetacean live beyond menopause.) “We have no shared collective articulation for what later life is for, what the value of living longer is, except not dying,” says Elana Buch, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa who studies aging and labor inequality in the U.S. “We don’t have any conversations about what the point of it is, so we reproduce it from other parts of life — doing things you didn’t get to do before.”

There’s only so much that polling can tell us about how older people envision their coming decades. In a recent survey, the AARP found that, when it comes to growing old, people 55 and older looked most forward to having free time for family, friends and activities they enjoy; they most feared dementia and losing independence. What older people value in a place to live is much the same as it is for people in other life stages: well-maintained streets and sidewalks, safe parks. All of which seems to suggest a desire to stay connected to their current community — but says little about what their changing role within that community might be.

When Jimmy Buffett rang the doorbell of the home on Island Breeze Avenue, he was greeted by Al Murdock, an energetic 89-year-old with a firm handshake.

“I’m Jimmy Buffett,” Jimmy Buffett said.

“No, you’re not!” said Al’s wife, Fran, who assumed this was a practical joke.

Despite being the second household to arrive in Latitude Margaritaville, the Murdocks, like many residents, are not Parrotheads, as superfans of Buffett’s music are known. And yet, as the performer’s appearance at their door illustrated, the man and his brand are embedded in the fiber of the place, from the Miami Beach scent floating through the models to the Margaritaville® Key West™ Frozen Concoction Makers® that the sales team sets up in every finished home. In fact, Buffett, 71, bought a Bimini model (two beds, 2.5 baths) and was ostensibly calling on his new neighbors (P.R. team in tow). More than anything, I was curious how residents who were not connoisseurs of Buffett’s music had decided to embrace — quite possibly for the rest of their lives — such a particular atmosphere. “We had to downsize,” Fran said. “Didn’t know if it would need to be assisted living. Because I’m 92. People were saying that’s what I need. We looked at some of the places, and you’d see people playing bingo and we thought, That’s not what we want to do.” They happened to drive by the Margaritaville sales center and stopped in on a whim; a greeter showed them around. “Well, he had a sales pitch that you wouldn’t believe,” Fran went on. “And the next thing we know, Al’s in line at 3 a.m. waiting to get us a model.”

Al added, “We wanted to meet more people. In most subdivisions, you know the names of people on both sides and maybe across the street. We know people all over the block and where they came from and the jobs they had. There’s a feeling of neighborhood that I haven’t experienced since I was a kid.”

More than half of Americans — young people more so than older people, in fact — report feeling that “no one knows them well,” a recent Cigna survey suggests. But for baby boomers, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, the problem of social isolation has become alarming, thanks to the generation’s inclination to “age in place,” especially in the suburbs. “In these low-density areas, it’s harder to meet your neighbors by accident, by walking in the neighborhood or bumping into them at a coffee shop,” Jennifer Molinsky, the study’s lead author, told me. And the evidence that social ties improve health for older people is significant: A recent study by the AARP Public Policy Institute and Harvard and Stanford Universities estimated that isolation among older adults costs Medicare an additional $6.7 billion a year.

All the residents I met shared Al’s desire for a “feeling of neighborhood” their previous homes lacked. Lana Byer, 71, moved in in April. “Everyone looks out for everyone else,” Byer said. “That was missing in the place I was living. Frankly, it’s exceeded my expectations. It’s so much better. It’s a joy to get up in the morning.” Byer had owned a court-reporting firm in Pittsburgh and is divorced. In other communities, she felt excluded by married couples, but that has not happened here. “There were places I’ve lived where, if my daughter didn’t call me, no one would know I was alive,” she said. “Here, they know I’m alive. It’s like living at a resort.” That morning, she’d come from a nutrition group. Later, on her way to paint wine glasses, she planned to stop by happy hour.

I wondered if there was a chance that the feeling of being on a perpetual vacation would get old after a while? “Only if you do,” she said.

Byer is far from the only single woman in Margaritaville. Rhonda Harvey, 62, lost her husband in an accident on Interstate 4 last year. Afterward, her mother, Ethel, 85, moved in. “I had 12 acres,” Harvey said. “Now there’s almost 12 feet between here and the next house.” Harvey works as the chief operating officer of a behavioral health care agency with nearly 900 employees. Ethel, who is home alone during the day, feels safer with a guardhouse and nearby neighbors. Both are from Kentucky, where one of Harvey’s daughters still lives. “In some ways I think you could say the community that’s intentional here is reminiscent of small towns there where that’s just the way it was,” she said.

Harvey’s career requires her to understand basic human needs. “In social work, there are three things for good mental health,” she told me. “Something to do, something to love, something to hope for.” Harvey plainly had the first two: she worked full time; she loved her family. But what did she hope for?

“This community fully developing,” she said. “I think that’s one thing we all hope for.”

What does a successful community look like? Are its features universal or situational? In “The Republic,” Plato sketches an ideal city, ruled by a gentle philosopher-king with scant interest in power. It occurred to me that Margaritaville, too, is ruled by a benevolent philosopher. His decrees are painted on driftwood and hung everywhere: “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” “Livin’ for the Weekend.” Al Murdock, it turned out, had thought a lot about this iconography. At the turn-in, a Margaritaville sign is affixed to an enormous ladderlike structure — “a lifeguard tower,” Al said. “In Jimmy Buffett’s mind, this is an island. It’s a state of mind surrounded by land.”

“Al bought his autobiography,” Fran said. “That’s where he’s getting all this information.”

On the surface, the state of mind Buffett advertises seems purposefully mindless: grab a drink, kick back, relax. But Al read the invitation differently. By way of explanation he gave me two poems he’d written about “latitude” as freedom from expectation and opportunity for change; “paradise” was simply “where neighbors help their neighbors/And their differences forgot.”

For all their paradisal appeal, islands are also isolated. Many researchers and designers I spoke with described a future in which seniors will want to be more integrated with other age groups, not less, and the challenge will be making senior-housing communities, which exclude younger people to create an inclusive place for older people, more porous.

“I go to so many zoning meetings where people will say on the public record, ‘I don’t want seniors in the center of my community,’ ” Max Winters, a planner and designer at Perkins Eastman, said. Winters is in his late 20s; the co-leader of the firm’s senior-housing group, Dan Cinelli, is in his mid-60s. They are encouraging their clients to share square footage with companies like day spas, restaurants and coffee shops that appeal to a wider audience. The physical spaces could be adjusted to accommodate seniors — the lighting tweaked to reduce glare on thicker glasses, the acoustics tuned for the hard of hearing — while remaining inviting to millennials, too. “We’re seeing more adult children wanting to visit their parents in those settings,” Cinelli said. “Whereas 20 years ago, it was, ‘Oh, I’ll come get you and take you to a nice restaurant.’ Kids and grandkids want to come because it’s got a good vibe.”

Technology, meanwhile, is poised to shift how and where care is delivered. At some point, automated cars will let people who are no longer able to drive remain mobile longer. Nicole Werner, an industrial and systems engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is preparing to pilot a social platform that would help people caring for a relative at home to organize assistance from a network of friends and relatives without having to ask for it. The software would learn routines and assign tasks automatically. “If you live in a city and you’re rich, it’s easy,” Werner, who plans to test the platform with people living with dementia in low-income rural and urban households, told me. “Disadvantaged groups have community. You can harness the people around you.”

Still, it will be hard to change how we value old age without changing how we value the labor needed to support it — which, right now, is being done primarily by immigrant women and women of color for starkly low pay. “The challenge is we’ve mostly managed longer life spans by inventing low-wage jobs to support older adults, and that’s already failing,” Elana Buch, the anthropologist, says. A partial solution could be personal robots, which at most are a decade away from being able to assist older adults with tasks as delicate and varied as using the bathroom and making tea, says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow with Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrated Innovation Institute. “The beauty of A.I. is it’s affordable by all,” he says. Robots, though, are likely to reveal the degree to which we’ve taken for granted the emotional connection human caregivers provide — and force us to put a price tag on it.

Retailers, too, remain largely unprepared to tap this rapidly expanding market of older adults. The AgeLab at M.I.T. estimates that just 5 to 10 percent of advertising dollars are spent to reach people over 50. “We never speak of ‘fun’ with the older consumer,” Joe Coughlin, the lab’s director, says. “But retirement is a third of adult life.”

In seeking to understand the desires, not just needs, of older consumers, Latitude Margaritaville seems ahead of the curve. In 2010, Minto, the developer, purchased the remaining buildable land in Sun City Center, Fla., one of the nation’s first age-restricted retirement communities. “There were residents that had been there for 20-plus years. There are 17,000 households there,” William Bullock, Minto’s Latitude Margaritaville Division president, told me. “It gave us insight into where the market was headed.” Once the companies announced the Latitude Margaritaville partnership, their database of interested buyers exploded to 150,000, whom they could target with digital surveys, rather than convening a handful of seniors for a focus group behind a two-way mirror. Bullock said: “We got as granular as asking, ‘How many concerts do you want a week? Five by the pool and six by the community green.’ ” As Stuart Schultz, director of residential community relations for the Daytona site, put it, “Our aim is to give them exactly what they want.”

But the paradox persists: No one wants to see themselves as old, because of the stigma attached to aging, so products and communities are designed to disguise or ignore the real struggles that accompany aging, thereby reinforcing the idea that those struggles are aberrant or shameful. The residents of Margaritaville often compared their living experience to college, to the amusement of their children. But were they pretending to be young, or refusing to conform to ageist notions about who gets to enjoy what? “Honey, we don’t sit around and drink mint tea,” Byer told her daughter, “We go to each other’s homes, we dance, we bring hors d’oeuvres.”

The challenge will most likely be keeping these activities accessible to residents who become less mobile. “No one wants to die and no one wants to believe they won’t be able to do the things they do now,” Cinelli told me. “If you’re in senior living and you see somebody who needs help being fed, you want them to go somewhere more appropriate. Seeing someone I used to play cards with needing help, that is fundamentally disturbing.

“How do you create a world where everyone knows how to deal with a person with dementia?” he went on. “If a waitstaff knew you had dementia, they don’t hand you a menu. They say, ‘Hey, we’ve got some great salmon and it has that sauce you like.’ Rather than handing you a menu, and your spouse says, ‘He can’t read a menu,’ and that embarrasses you.”

“It’s a feedback loop,” Winters added. “We’re not comfortable with aging because we’ve relegated it to these other places. As more places do it, it does get integrated into our cultural consciousness in a way. I think it’s going to transform the whole thing.”

If senior housing, with its careful stagecraft, is theater, who are the playwrights and who the audience members? Who’s in charge? I found myself increasingly preoccupied by this question as I toured the model homes in Margaritaville: cheerful open-floor-plans with discreet accommodations for aging bodies — raised counters, walk-in showers, buttons that summon emergency aid and flash a light outside your house so E.M.T.s can find you. They were brand-designed sets, down to the countertops styled with fake tequila shots and plastic cheeseburgers. What had people seen — or not seen — here that made them so sure this was where they wanted their third act to happen? What did these homes say about who they aspired to be?

The mystery deepened as the residents themselves opened their doors to personalized interiors that bore no resemblance to the showrooms. Lana Byer favored cherry wood and floral upholstery; Karen Goodwin and her 55-year-old husband, Norm, had modular furniture and purple walls. Fran Murdock, despite her intention to downsize, couldn’t part with her curio cabinets, which held among other treasures a childhood tea set with Mickey and Minnie painted on it.

As we spoke in their living rooms and at their kitchen tables, they were frank about watching their own parents, grandparents and even children struggle with poor health as they got older. But until that happened to them, they said, they wanted to have fun — more than anything, that’s what Margaritaville represented.

When I pressed them to explain what “fun” meant, however, nearly all of them told me about a tiki hut that the Latitude sales team stands beneath from 9 to 5, handing out maps and bottled water; after a protracted negotiation, they had secured its use one night a week for a potluck. “It’s B.Y.O.B.,” Fran said. “Every time we go we meet someone new.” While their carefully curated stage set was being finished, they had essentially gone rogue.

In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs dismisses planned urban utopias of the 19th century as “very nice” — if “you were docile and had no plans of your own.” Instead of designing to some imagined ideal, or to statistics, she writes, planners and citizens ought to study small, existing successes — a popular tiki hut, say — to understand what is “most vital” to a place and its people, and build around that.

In trying to imagine how today’s residents might feel about Margaritaville in 20 or 30 years, I kept returning to the tiki hut, where everyone was welcome: What created that feeling, and could it last? I asked Bill and Kelley Sarantis, both 55, who live across the street from the Murdocks, why they thought the residents got along so well, when the country felt so divided outside. Did Margaritaville attract a particular type of person, or did the atmosphere of the place change those who settled there?

It wasn’t always harmonious, Bill said. There were people on the neighborhood Facebook page who complained — about the lack of a nearby Costco, or a scratch in their granite countertop. “And people have said, ‘Maybe this is not the community for you.’

“You focus on the lifestyle of living here, which I think is pretty incredible,” he went on. “Sometimes in the morning I have to pinch myself. We’re in a place where people all over the country are waiting in line to come. When you get older, you think about your mortality a little more than when you were younger. And I think that helps people here say, ‘We’re along for the ride, we’re here to share our love and experiences.’ ”

I put Rhonda Harvey’s question to them: What did they hope for? “I hope not to be bored,” Kelley said.

“Not to be alone,” Bill added. So far, both wishes had come true.