For most of America'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 toward 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 percent 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.

This arrangement was highly functional: The elderly needed help as they aged, and children and grandchildren provided it. In return, the elderly took care of young children, and otherwise pulled their weight around the house.