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
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.
Photographs byKendrick Brinson
Published October 28, 2020
• 13 min read
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Obsessed with a treasure city, conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa. To spare his life, the emperor offered up the largest cache of gold the Spanish ever acquired in the Americas.