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The Youngest Senior

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When residents at Sun City Center, a sprawling retirement community in West Central Florida, struggle with their electronics, many of them now know who to call on: Maria Hodge, one of their newest residents, and also one of their youngest.

Since moving to this 55-plus community last year, Ms. Hodge, 59, has become a fixture among the nearly 11,500 residents, where the average age is 79. She cooks a weekly lunch for the volunteer EMT team. She serves as secretary of the synchronized swim team. She regularly dons a crisp laminated name badge and rides her golf cart over to the community information center to give tours to prospective new residents, gushing about its dance hall and fitness center, its art studios and woodcarving rooms, and its dozens of unique neighborhoods clustered around gardens and 90 small lakes.

But one of her favorite activities these days is tech support.

“We have people here who still have what we call the dino-phone,” she said. “They still have flip phones. And most of the women on my swim team are challenged when it comes to electronics.”

ImageA woman in a swimming pool kicks up one leg while swimming on her back.
Ms. Hodge in her backyard pool. She and her husband purchased their two-bedroom house sight unseen, and then did a full renovation that included a new kitchen and the swimming pool.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Ms. Hodge, a native of Cherry Hill, N.J., never imagined she’d settle in a retirement community well before her 60th birthday, but here she is a spring snowbird living in a community of people old enough to be her parents.

There are thousands of 55-plus communities scattered across the United States, with the majority clustered in Florida and the Southwest. Unlike assisted living and nursing homes, 55-plus communities offer older Americans an option to purchase traditional single-family homes but tap into a built-in network of friendship, extracurricular activities and an active, age-appropriate lifestyle that fits their needs as they enter retirement. In general, they require at least one member of a household to be 55 years old or older, and nearly all are governed by a homeowners’ association that collects dues to cover the costs of activities, community events and facilities.

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Mr. and Ms. Hodge with their golf cart, which displays their roots in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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Road signs at Sun City Center show the community’s affinity for travel by golf cart.

Such communities also offer a major incentive: cheaper real estate. An age-restricted pool of buyers creates less competition, so homes in 55-plus communities tend to be priced below market value, and Sun City Center is no exception. The median home price was $320,000 in September 2023, according to Realtor.com, while the median for houses in nearby Tampa was $409,500.

Sun City Center — with its grocery stores, retail shops, churches, a synagogue, a hospital and golf carts that can be legally driven on its roads — is one of the largest 55-plus communities in the country.

Ms. Hodge and her husband, Tim Hodge, 63, bought a two-bedroom single-family house with a den there for $375,000 in June 2022, after only seeing it online. But they were ready to move south, pushed by the pandemic.

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Sun City Center — with its grocery stores, retail shops, churches, a synagogue, a hospital and golf carts that can be legally driven on its roads — is one of the largest 55-plus communities in the country.
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Ms. Hodge makes small talk with other residents of Sun City.

In 2020, they were living in rural Pennsylvania in a 4,000-square-foot house abutting 98 acres of protected land and the isolation, in lockdown, was crushing.

Mr. Hodge, who worked as a systems engineer and manager at Lockheed Martin for 40 years, had retired and got used to staying home, while Ms. Hodge, who worked in restaurant sales and catering, was still at it, often putting in 15-hour days to arrange deliveries and catering services for clients while the pandemic raged. The imbalance was obvious to Mr. Hodge, and something had to give. “My husband looked at me one day and said, ‘What are we doing? You’re never home. You’re exhausted all the time,’” Ms. Hodge said.

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Ms. Hodge, wearing the laminated name badge she uses while giving tours of Sun City, chats with potential residents in one of the craft studios.

Several months into the pandemic, the couple traveled to Florida to visit friends and felt a significant cultural difference. They liked it.

“In Pennsylvania, it was militant lockdown,” Ms. Hodge said. “We got to Florida and it was super loose. It was culture shock after living under a regime of ‘You’re not going anywhere, you’re not doing anything.’”

Research shows that loneliness is directly correlated to poor health outcomes, particularly in older populations,said Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University. And when they move to a senior community, the environment that older Americans leave behind plays a big role in whether or not they thrive, she added.

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Ms. Hodge at home, enjoying a cuddle with Ginger, her Bichon Frise-Yorkie mix.

“If you were living in a place with close friends and ties, senior living doesn’t necessarily offer you something better. But for many people who are isolated, senior living is very attractive,” she said.

That was certainly true for Mr. and Ms. Hodge, who were drawn to the idea of being surrounded not just by sunshine but also by social activities. They began to seriously discuss the idea of moving to Florida for good. And they knew that if they were going to pack up and head south, they wanted to do so as two retirees (Ms. Hodge still puts in a few hours a week doing restaurant consulting remotely).

Mr. Hodge was eager to leave the cold winters of the Northeast behind him. Ms. Hodge, an avid Disney fan, was intrigued by the prospect of living close enough to Disney World to visit on a regular basis. Both were curious about Sun City Center’s dozens of clubs and organizations, which include lawn bowling, chess, Bible study, chorus and pickleball.

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Ms. Hodge chatting with her husband, Tim, over a meal.

The couple, who share six grown children, sold their house in Pennsylvania in June 2022 for $525,000, with plans to downsize in the next phase of their life. They might have gone too far, they admitted. The new Sun City house is 1,700 square feet and they said it feels small.

“My husband and I jokingly say we live in a hovel,” Ms. Hodge said. They share the space with their dog, Ginger, a Bichon-Yorkie mix, and after moving in, they spent $100,000 on a gut renovation that involved new quartz countertops and the installation of custom closets, plus an additional $100,000 for an in-ground pool that fills their screened-in porch and offers a lakeside view.

Sixteen months in, they’ve established a rhythm — Mr. Hodge loves to race radio-controlled cars and volunteers with a group called the Lamplighters, who help residents replace light bulbs in the lampposts that illuminate Sun City Center’s streets at night. He enjoys spending long days at home, lounging on the sofa with Ginger.

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The couple enjoying a dueling-pianos show near their new home in Florida.

Ms. Hodge, in the meantime, puts in 20 hours a week with her synchronized swim team, where she is the youngest member (the oldest is 94). She can now rattle off most of the clubs and organizations of Sun City Center by heart, and she has made friends — even though most are at least a decade older than her.

”I look at the roster on my swim team and I see some of the birth dates, and I’m like,” she said, adding a profanity that starts with “holy” and might not go over well at Bible study. “Some of my friends are really old — it’s like, oh, this person’s in their 70s, they’re not going to be around as long as me,” she said.

But she has made peace with it, and learned to enjoy her position in the community.

“People here see me and they’re like, ‘This is energy. This is great,” she said. “I don’t really see myself here with the residents, but it’s also super rewarding to teach the older crew how to get stuff done in a different way. It makes me feel younger.”

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Sun City Center has sprawling grounds that include gardens and 90 small lakes.

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