Arizona — Where The Party Never Gets Old

Baby boomers represent one quarter of Americans. Well educated and economically savvy, most are hardly the epitome of old codgers in rocking chairs. And while retirement communities, particularly in the Sun Belt, have been growing for years, it’s taken a bit longer for Hollywood to give boomers a series all their own.

Now there’s the reality series Sunset Daze, premiering April 28 on WE tv. It follows a group of retirees in sun-drenched Surprise, Ariz., who make it clear that getting older doesn’t have to mean losing that sense of adventure.

A boomer myself, I was more than happy to talk to two of the stars of this new reality series about life in Surprise. And their stories couldn’t be more different.

Ann’s Story

Ann is a former nun from a small village in Ireland who left the order after 21 years and married an American who worked in the Foreign Service. They traveled the world together and planned to settle down on one of the coasts, as her husband loves boating. But after a visit to friends in Arizona, they settled in Surprise.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

Ann: We visited Phoenix to see a friend. We fell in love with this place and I really feel at home. It was only after I moved in that I realized how scared I was of coming to live in the States. Because it is a scary move for a little girl from a little village — to live somewhere in the U.S. because the United States is a very big place.

Can you tell me a little bit about your area?

This city was established in 1961 and is the fastest-growing city in the United States. Del Webb was the original guy who had this idea of retirement living. In the late ’50s and ’60s he built Sun City, which is basically a retirement community and is a city of its own. Then Sun City West, which is also a city of its own. He built a retirement community in Surprise, but the community is only about 10 percent of the entire city … so we are subject to school taxes and all the others. There are 8,000 homes in the retirement area.

What was your attitude about growing older before getting older happened to you?

Being a nun for 21 years, I think a lot of my life was focused on the next life. I never really thought about growing old. It was, “I’m in the here and now and I’m getting ready for heaven.” But I never actually thought of the aging process because within convent life, I saw nuns get old and all I knew was that it definitely wasn’t anything scary. They were all involved and still are, and the nuns that were there in my day are still there in their 90s. I heard one old nun, Sister Rafael, looking forward to death, and in a very positive way. My husband is American and he thinks the Irish are obsessed with talking about death. And it’s true. Whenever the Irish get together, we say weird things like, “Oooh, he had a grand death,” or, “He had lovely death.”

When I left the convent I never focused on retirement or old age because I was so busy trying to maneuver my way through my new life. Getting a job, getting my house, finding out who I was and building up my confidence. So the idea of retirement never came into my head. My journey was inwards, finding out an inner strength that [now] gives me the energy for retirement.

What are some of your favorite pastimes?

I’m 61 now and there definitely aren’t 61 years ahead of me, but I feel there is so much to learn about me between now and my death as between my birth and today. There is still such a journey unfolding so I live much more in today and am aware of the opportunities that present themselves and the choices I have. The big difference for me is when I was much younger, failure or not being good at something defined me. Now failure or not succeeding at something is a chance to say, “Well, this is who I am. I’m not particularly good at this thing. Let’s be open to something else.” Life for me now is more about [the] opportunity to accept who I am and what the day presents. I tell my friend about anything that I have done or she shares with me what happened to her. She always says, “Ah, I just love the God of surprises.” And that’s really what my life is now. Just surprises. I’m surprised to be living and surprised that I can go skydiving. Have the opportunity to become a good photographer and the opportunity to travel. Really, the most important thing is the opportunity to look at who I am, not to be scared of it or be afraid of failure or negative feelings or afraid of sadness. And I was so afraid of all of this. The longest and scariest journey for me was to turn inwards and look at who I am.

What other things do you do now?

John and I love to travel. And we’re very involved with just having guests in because John has to be the best host in the world. Sharing our lives with his family and my family is important and we have the weather to do that. John just loves giving both our families the gift of our sunshine here.

What’s it been like having the cameras on you?

Am I surprised that I don’t mind the cameras? Yes. I think it has something to do with the fact that I have reached the stage where I am happy with who I am. But I still can’t get it into my head that I’m going to be looking at myself on TV. It’s like, is it really going to happen? And my family in Ireland are fascinated. [When they arrived here] the cameras were there welcoming them.

Jack’s Story

Jack lived in the Southwest for 33 years before moving to Surprise to take advantage of the activities. A single man, he has an active social life in a number of the community’s clubs.

From what I know about statistics on how women tend to live longer, Surprise must be a great place for you, isn’t it?

Jack: Well Surprise, as far as this community I’m in, is a beautiful, gorgeous place to live.

What brought you to Surprise? Were you surprised by what you found there?

I looked at this community from the time it opened around 1997. I’ve been out here a couple of times and I knew what was waiting for me — four golf courses and two recreation centers, just about every kind of sport you could think of and some you’ve never heard of. There are all sorts of clubs — and, of course, I’m in the singles club here. There’s just a lot to do. I’m busier now than when I was working.

What was your attitude about getting older before getting older happened to you?

That’s one terrific question, isn’t it? My attitude about getting older was it’s inevitable and everybody gets a turn. It’s one of the few fair things in life. I didn’t look at being a senior citizen then the way I do now. I looked at it as a negative thing but it’s really very positive. Most of us are having the time of our lives out here.

Is enthusiasm there infectious?

I can’t speak for married people, but I can say as a single person out here — and there aren’t that many of us — if you can’t find things to do in a place like this, you need to see a doctor. You’re too depressed to appreciate it. The weather here is so good, you hardly ever hear the term “rainout.” We had 3-1/4 inches of rain last year — for the entire year.

It is very hot in the summer but it’s also dry, and a day when it’s 100 to us may feel like a day of 80 to you. Only when it’s about 114 or so do you want to go inside or to a swimming pool. So we do a lot of cooking and entertaining here. I have a young lady coming over to have dinner with me tonight, so I’m cooking.

What are your favorite pastimes?

You mean aside from women? My passion is movies. I have a vast collection of films. I enjoy musicals, musical comedy, dancing. Another one is to be in the fitness center — doing some speed walking up in the air-conditioned track. I play sports occasionally. And we have parties here all the time. The singles club has a schedule of activities. There’s just a lot going on here.

I have a feeling when people see this show there will be a lot of interest in moving down here, especially among women. The show is directed at women to let them know there are places like this around the country that offer this lifestyle and you don’t have to sit home alone and be miserable.

What’s it been like having the cameras on you?

Well, it’s a fun thing to do. Using myself as an example, it came out of the blue. Suddenly something comes into your life that completely disrupts it but also is a fun thing to do and who knows what will happen with it? The show should be based on what I’ve done and some things I probably shouldn’t have done — and some that I hope don’t even make the show. There’s a little bit of ego involved. It’s like here’s our 15 minutes of fame, because after 100 hours of shooting that’s probably what they’ll get out of it.