[Paleopsych] Boston Globe: Fast Times at Brooksby High

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Wed Nov 16 22:39:57 UTC 2005

Fast Times at Brooksby High

[Click the URL for pictures. It's been said that as we get older, we run 
through the stages of life backward, winding up a helpless infants. This 
article is about regression to high school in retirement communities. I went to 
an all-male boarding school and missed out on the co-educational public high 
school of my time. And UVa was all male, in undergraduate arts and sciences, 
too. My regression would be to recreate the living scene there, with wives 
instead of male roommates. There's a lot to be said for paring down one's 
possessions to fit into a dorm room! UVa has a superb library, so no great need 
for books. And 64 CDs can be squeezed onto a single DVD, using MP3 compression. 
What's brand new would be just this computer. It would replace a typewriter and 
a high-fi system. The great thing about dorm live was no teevee. Except for 
being home during the Summer, my life was without teevee, from the Fall of 1958 
until I broke down and got one for the children in 1992, when they were 16 and 
14, resp. (They have repeated expressed gratitude for my banning teevee from 
the house. Neighbors were either appalled or praised me for my courage.) So 
from the Twilight Zone until the last year of L.A. Law, I have largely missed 
the teevee experience. Alas, a teevee tuner for a computer can be had for $100 
or so.]

Village People

With 2 million Massachusetts baby boomers set to turn 55 between now and
2020, sprawling retirement complexes are cropping up all over. Spend time
inside one of these places and you'll see laughter and tears, romance and
cliques - and complaints about the chocolate pudding. You may also see your

    By Neil Swidey  |  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

    The 91-year-old who plays Dirk, the scoundrel, can dance like
    moonlight 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
    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
    stained glass 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

    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

    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.

    "March 8."

    "Of 2004?

    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

    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

    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

    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 independent-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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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 . . .

    Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at
    swidey at globe.com.

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