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Stephen Mihm

Coronavirus Exposes the Dangers of Age Segregation

America’s embrace of retirement communities and nursing homes has led to a unique vulnerability.

Questioning the wisdom of a voluntary movement.

Questioning the wisdom of a voluntary movement.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For most of the nation’s history, the idea that people over the age of 65 would voluntarily herd themselves into special communities built around their needs would have seemed absurd, even dystopian. Yet a largely voluntary movement towards segregating people by age has reached extreme levels in recent years — and without receiving much attention at all. The coronavirus outbreak could put an end to it.

In 1850, nearly 70% of individuals age 65 or older lived with their adult children. Most of the rest tended to live in close geographical proximity. As a consequence, older people were more or less evenly distributed throughout the country.