In America's oldest active retirement community, joy endures through the pandemic

An intimate look at how the residents of Sun City, Arizona have found ways to maintain their dynamic lifestyle

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Members of the Sun City Poms, a cheerleading squad, have been hula hooping together outside since the COVID-19 pandemic stopped their regular practices. The Poms are one of many clubs and teams in Sun City, a community fostering active retirement.

Peggy Parsons had a dream. In her eighth decade she wanted to be a cheerleader. So she convinced her husband Bill to pack up their house and move 15 minutes down the road to Sun City, Arizona, a community with palm trees and cactus-lined streets where 40,000-some residents—who average 73.5 years of age—can join more than 130 clubs, from mahjong and pickleball to tapdancing and cheerleading.

It was not the first (or farthest) move for Parsons, now 79. But it was a momentous one. She and Bill, now 92, are residents of what was the first community of its kind when it opened in 1960. Located in Maricopa County, less than 30 minutes northwest of Phoenix, Sun City is designed to foster active retirement, to provide people over 55 a full life after work and raising children.

With its seven recreational centers and eight golf courses, Sun City is “like Disneyland for seniors,” Peggy said. “It’s like living permanently on vacation, but you don’t have to live out of your suitcase.”

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A crowd gathers at the Sun Bowl Amphitheater to watch Bella Donna, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band in October 2014.

But in March, the bustle and energy that made Sun City so appealing to its residents lurched to a halt. The community’s residents are considered particularly susceptible to the virus due to their age. As of October 22, the county where they live, Arizona’s most populous, has had 65 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the state. Local news estimates that there are around 850 cases in the Sun City area.

In this insular community, the pandemic poses problems large and small. Suddenly, people had “nothing to do and all day to do it,” says 72-year-old Bill Pearson, who has lived here for 17 years. All of the community’s recreation centers were closed, as were the amphitheater, softball field, bowling centers, and dog park. Golf, which Arizona governor Doug Ducey declared an essential service, was permitted to continue.

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The 3,000-capacity Sun Bowl Amphitheater has been empty since March. All shows have been cancelled and will not resume until 2021.

 

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The Sun City Poms practiced twice a week for three hours and performed 12 parades and 50 shows a season before the pandemic.

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The Sun City Poms, currently led by Braddock and Parsons, started in 1979 when the Sun City Saints, a women’s softball team, had trouble drawing a crowd. “No one came to watch, so they decided they needed cheerleaders. And it worked!” says Geri.

For some, social distancing and shelter-in-place rules meant they were cut off from their social circles. Before the pandemic, Marilyn Richling, 76, and her husband John, 73, spent much of their time square dancing with friends. Their vulnerability due to preexisting medical conditions means that they no longer leave their home.

"[Square dancing] was my only outlet, other than church and family. Church shut down. Square dancing shut down,” Marilyn said. “It was stay at home and do nothing.”

Some residents have adapted. Every morning at 6 a.m., the pickleball players put up portable nets and chalk three courts onto the pavement of a church parking lot. The Desert Aires, a group of barbershop singers, learned to use Zoom so they could rehearse. Jeff Skaggs, 69, one half of a two-man band called Dos Boomers, invited neighbors to bring lawn chairs to the cul de sac in front of his home for a free outdoor concert.

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Players compete in a two-day lawn bowling tournament near a Sun City recreation center in December 2013.

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John Stewart, 84, stands outside his house in Sun City, where he has lived with his wife Dora, 80, for 23 years. Originally from Scotland, the couple has won national lawn bowling tournaments and are in the sport’s U.S. hall of fame. “I think we are the only couple” in the hall of fame, John says. “Alive,” Dora adds.

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The Sun City Aqua Suns, a synchronized swimming team, walk the red carpet at the Lakeview Recreation Center before a performance in December 2010.

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Purple Woods, 78, was born dancing, she says. Before the pandemic she danced four nights a week at Sun City’s dancing clubs. “That's the reason I came down here,” she says. “In fact, in 2005 when I had cancer, I said, Lord, I don't mind if I go through all this chemotherapy but if I can't dance after, I don't want to live.”

As vice president of the Sun City Poms cheerleading squad, as well as the treasurer of the Tip Top Dancers tap club, Parsons is missing the action. In a typical year, the Poms march in 12 parades and put on 50 shows a season. “A lot of [my time was] spent dancing,” she said. “Once you retire, it’s like how did I ever have time to work?”

The Sun City Poms don’t think they can practice again until next year, says team president Geri Braddock. But that hasn’t stopped them from seeing each other. After Geri found two hula hoops in her garage, they realized they could all hula hoop outside together safely. They now meet once a week at 7 a.m. in a teammate’s backyard.

“My whole insides were happy again. When we started this, I had this happy glow all day long,” said Kathy Villa, 63, who is also in the yoga club, the tai chi club, and the tap club. “We got to see friends and socialize and speak to people face to face. It was a wonderful day.”

For many of the women, the Poms are more than just a team. Cheryl Jackson, 68, left behind four children, nine grandchildren, and a city she knew to move to Sun City nine years ago, and the cheerleaders have become her friends, sisters, and support system. “What’s wrong with joy?” she said. “It’s something we definitely need now.”

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Many Sun City residents have tried to make the most of the quarantine. "I don't really feel like I've been suppressed at all," says Lynda Skaggs. "I love living here. I've made more friends in the last three years than the last 25."