TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Lloyd Lewis started building retirement communities more than 25 years ago, he took a scouting trip around the country to see what was out there.
What he found was a virtual desert -- an "ageist society" with no real quality service for the elderly.
What he ended up becoming was a pioneer in retirement living.
"I hadn't wanted to get involved in retirement communities because I didn't believe in segregation by age, but I was urged to because the need was so great," said Lewis recently during a break at an informal conference here to promote the Arizona Academy, a planned retirement community near Tucson for "people who want to stay involved in life." Lewis, a partner in the new endeavor, was a key speaker on a subject he knows well: reinventing retirement.
He described his achievements as founder of Pennsylvania-based Kendal Communities Development Co. in building or advising 15 projects, including three near college campuses, that have served as models for innovation. His first project, in 1971, Kendal at Longwood, Pa., was sponsored by a group of Quaker Friends who perceived the need for such a facility.
Today, Lewis told his audience, the Longwood Kendal has 350 residents, whose average age is 75.
"They are not sitting around -- they have 70 active committees and are far outperforming the national average of longevity," he told his audience. "I'm sure that living an active life, a vital life, is the key to a successful old age."
At 70, Lewis, who has been ahead of the curve in preaching active retirement, finds that his message is starting to sound like the new buzzword.
The country's aging baby boomers, now edging into their 50s, are already getting credit for giving retirement a peppy new look. "Boomers to Reinvent Retirement," announces the current issue of American Association of Retired Persons Bulletin, predicting that boomers will stretch out their working lives, moving in and out of new careers, leading productive lives well into their 80s.
This has been Lewis' idea all along.
These expanded options are increasingly important, as the American life span grows, says Jill Gracey, a specialist in geriatric acute care. (The number of Americans 55 and older will reach 75 million by 2010, up from 55 million in 1995, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
"It's a new era of life," Gracey said. "Thirty years ago, you died at 70, so the five years of golf after retirement might have made sense. Today you might have a coronary artery transplant at the age of 59 and live a long time."
Lewis, who is convinced that "getting timely care can lengthen years and the quality of life," has specialized in building continuing-care retirement homes, specifically designed with health centers and medical care facilities as well as social and recreational amenities.
He started from ground zero: In 1971 there were no geriatricians and only one or two medical schools with any courses on geriatric medicine, he recalled.
As he tried to recruit doctors, the usual line he heard was: "I know just the person, an old doctor who's retired and would be perfect for treating old people."
That was not what Lewis had in mind. "But the truth was that in 1971, we were not training any doctors or nurses to take care of old people. That very quickly explains why our nursing homes were such bad places.
"They were largely places where we sent old people to be cared for in what we hoped was a kind and loving manner, but that was about the extent of our vision of elderly care."
Not only was he among the pioneers launching a national movement to license nursing home administrators, he also focused on the lack of professional people in the field. "I actually got a foundation grant to form a consortium of academic institutions to encourage the development of geriatric content in their academic programs such as social work and nursing and psychology and medicine."
An active alumnus of Swarthmore College, he liked the Swarthmore campus model, with its ongoing calendar of cultural and intellectual activities, as perfect for a retirement community.
His communities include three in the college towns of Ithaca, N.Y.; Oberlin, Ohio; and Hanover, N.H. The locations have achieved a double benefit -- the residents can take advantage of the campus culture, and students at the medical and social work schools can get geriatric experience. "I was always interested in such relationships," Lewis said.
When he first began visiting retirement homes, he recalls, he was struck by the number of people sitting around doing nothing and then complaining because they didn't like the evening movies, they didn't like the games, they didn't like the food.
"Right from the beginning, there were things I refused to do," said Lewis. "I wouldn't decide what kind of facilities the residents should have -- I insisted they develop their own. They could go buy the movie projector and pick the movies to be shown. `Aren't you going to do that for us?' they asked, and I said, `No, I didn't have that in mind.' "
As a result, he said, no one complained about the Saturday night movies. "When people are able to maintain control over their own lives, in fact they flourish."
His idea for a "truly teaching institution" is still on the drawing board, as is his desire for a more complex wellness program, including an emphasis on exercise and nutrition.
And while the field of geriatric professionals is still far from crowded, he is optimistic about the evolution of the country's continuing care communities, which now number about 1,000 and, in his opinion, "provide the highest quality of long-term care in the United States.'
The Arizona Academy he is building in Tucson with Henry Koffler, president emeritus of the University of Arizona, symbolizes the emerging new look, he said. "It is being designed to help people keep working, whether they are teachers or artists or business people or whatever. It's an experiment and I think it's a great idea. My wife, Eliza, and I plan to move into it, and I can't wait."