To reach Hemlock Hills you stop your car at a sentry house, it checks you out, a gate rises, you drive half a mile to the grounds. The fifth largest retirement community in the U.S. is tucked into about fifty verdant acres of western New Jersey, eighteen buildings connected by indoor walkways. Over 1800 senior citizens, average age, 85½, 1250 of them women, live in well-appointed apartments, with guest bedrooms, kitchens, baths, walk-in closets and laundry service. I arrived on a sunny morning four days after Hurricane Irene had devastated the area but saw not a stray leaf on the perfectly edged lawns, every flower bed in perfect bloom.
In an expansive lobby of comfortable chairs, coffee tables, and deep pile carpets, residents checked mail boxes, popped into a snack bar, some walking carefully, some pushing walkers, some in wheelchairs, some whizzing by on electric power chairs. The young desk clerk wore a photo ID, as did all staffers. They strode by purposefully, slowing down when accompanying a senior. A poster headed EVENTS, read:
Coming to the Performing Arts Center
Last of the Red Hot Mamas
Songs of Sophie Tucker
Busses with the Hemlock Hills logo pulled up, seniors coming or going to nearby shopping malls. Through an open door I watched a dozen being led through simple exercises in silence. A little music would have helped, but there’s little else to criticize about Hemlock Hills.
A clerk gave me the community journal, Hemlock Herald, with articles: What is Your Health IQ?, Computer Class Starting, Volunteer of the Month, Meet Our Pharmacist. From a letter to the editor: Well I’m coming to my sixth year of fine facilities, activities, good meals, health care, and friendly companionship, plus the security that my children have knowing that “old Daddy” is taken care of.
The overwhelming message is “safe harbor.” Gone the struggles that earned enough wealth to afford Hemlock Hills. Now it is time to relax and savor each passing day. The average stay at Hemlock Hills is 4.6 years.
My dentist has parents born in Korea. He told me that as a young newly immigrated couple, they were puzzled to learn that few older Americans lived with their children, and shocked by the very idea of a retirement community.
As for me, I’d hate living with either of my adored children, but a retirement community seems too much like a hospice for people who aren’t quite ready to die. I asked my dentist if his parents lived with him now.
“No. They’re Americanized and have their own apartment in Flushing.”