The new retiree

July 26, 2001 |

To parody the old real estate joke, the three most important things in selling active adult-retirement communities to the baby boomers are: lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle.

People are retiring younger and are expecting to live longer, healthier post-retirement lives. Consequently, this population wants communities that offer such a lifestyle, says Gary Lester, vice president for community relations at The Villages, a large, full-service retirement community in central Florida, 55 miles northwest of Orlando.

'People now retire at 62 or younger with the sense that they're hoping to have 20 to 25 years of a very healthy, active lifestyle,' Lester says. 'They come here fully expecting to play lots of golf, travel and be active for many, many years.'

In Lester's experience, a number of seniors are also looking for a community that reminds them of the small towns many of them grew up in. In addition, they are seeking opportunities to volunteer and work, whether it's a second career or their retired profession. They may be living with children, grandchildren or aging parents. They are computer-literate and politically active. For example, when vice-president elect Dick Cheney visited The Villages during the 2000 presidential campaign, about 3,000 out of 25,000 people turned out to see him, according to Lester. Similarly, Sun City Huntley, a Del Webb community outside of Chicago (see photo above), saw a 95.5 percent voter turnout in the November 2000 election.

'The boomer market is obviously growing,' says Harriet Ford, director of public and community relations at Sun City Huntley. 'We refer to our buyers as 'zoomers' because they're on the edge of the baby boomers. They're technologically savvy, they push the envelope. They rollerblade. We have marathon runners out here. There's very little they won't try.' 

Because of these demands, and because the aging boomers are the largest demographic segment in the country today, the face of senior housing is changing, from the way floor plans are laid out to the kinds of settings people want to live in.

The working retiree

The stereotypical retiree is one who moves somewhere warm and plays golf every day. However, this is becoming less and less the norm. While golf courses do play a prominent role in many developments, their emphasis is becoming diffused.

'I think it's because the role of the woman has changed,' Ford says. 'When people retired, the man went off to play golf and the woman stayed home, chatted with friends and went to the salon on Saturdays. Now, they both have successful careers.'

In addition, retirees often don't want to leave their careers completely behind. At the Sun City development, many residents have stayed in Chicago and continue working, having maintained their professional contacts in the city.

According to a 1999 Del Webb survey of approximately 400 people between the ages of 48 and 52, about 61 percent of the respondents predicted that they would work at least 20 hours a week after retirement. A similar question posed to 400 people, aged 65 or older, revealed that only 19 percent held similar views.

With an emphasis on working after retirement, this means that residents often want space for home offices in their new houses or condominiums.

'That's one of the great things about computer technology,' Lester says. 'Folks say, 'I can do a lot of my work from my home in Florida, where it's 75 degrees, [rather] than in Chicago with its 10 inches of snow.' A lot of folks find they want work to be part of their retirement lifestyle. They don't want to continue to do the job they had for 40 years, but they still want to do something.'

(For more senior living design trends, see 'Listening to seniors at Del Webb.' )

Sense of community

In addition to an active lifestyle, a sense of community is also important to many retirees and will often be a deciding factor beyond the design of a retirement community's homes.  'People come here for the lifestyle to live in an active, friendly retirement hometown,' claims Lester.

When people buy homes in active adult communities, they buy more than a residence and lifetime membership at a golf course. They move into a preconceived community complete with a downtown at The Villages, or a 94,000-sq.-ft. lodge in Illinois, where winter prevents year-round outdoor activities.

The lodge, which Ford describes as the heart of the Del Webb community, has exercise facilities, including indoor and outdoor pools and an indoor walking track. Rooms are available for classes in everything from ceramics to computers, and the building is decorated with examples of residents' art on display, from paintings to quilts.

The fitness center schedule rivals a health club's, with classes in such specialized sports as tai chi, water aerobics and step aerobics. Other activities include theater trips, classes on subjects from Japanese flower arranging to basket-making and talks by guest lecturers.

At The Villages, the sense of community is reflected in the 25,000-resident development's overall layout. Homes are organized into one of 26 different 'villages,' each with its own flavor, says Lester.

'Most of them have their own recreational amenities,' he says. 'Some are built around lakes, others are in areas built around golf courses and still others are in areas with more mature trees.' The facility has its own downtown area, replete with a town square, restaurants, shopping and special events.

'On one hand, it's the new reality of a younger, healthier retirement, and this sort of new America, where people are sports-crazy and entertainment-crazy,' says Lester. 'It's a marriage of that with the sort of Norman-Rockwell Mayberry hometown.'

The appeal for this kind of living stems from the fact that most of The Villages residents grew up in small towns, Lester believes. For example, more people who move to The Villages come from small-town Illinois than from Chicago.

Creating new communities

Another option that combines a small-town atmosphere with some of the other needs of aging seniors is being explored by THW Design, an architectural firm based in Atlanta.

On one hand, many younger retirees prefer the lifestyle they find in retirement communities, says THW President William Witte. But as they age, if they develop health problems such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, seniors are faced with a difficult choice.

'They have a very expensive regimen from there on that may not be covered by insurance,' says Witte. 'Then they have to commute to wherever the partner is. One of the partners has to make another change in their social support group, maybe move to an assisted-living facility. Then if life deteriorates again, they have to go to another.'

Previously, people in this position might have initially chosen a facility that combined independent-living and skilled-care facilities, and allowed residents to move from one to the other if they needed to.

'Basically, what nursing homes would do is buy property, build cottages around the site, and a person could live in the cottage, eat in the dining room and use other care services,' Witte says. 'When the people reached the age when they had chronic problems, they'd have the right to go into the nursing home. That became popular for a whole lot of people, especially with limited incomes. These decisions were need-driven.'

Now, the attitude is different.

'These institutions are being seen by baby boomers as not attractive,' Witte says. 'They say, 'Not on my worst day are you going to get me to go there.' The reason was that it was scary, institutional, medical and need-driven.'

Witte's firm addressed baby boomers' fears and medical-care needs by creating developments such as The Cypress of Hilton Head, a 300- to 500-person community in South Carolina.

'When you drive on site, as far as you're concerned, you're in an upscale development, a regular community,' he says.

By combining houses, apartments, an assisted-living facility, a skilled-care facility and a clubhouse, it has married the peace of mind brought by on-site medical care with an upscale lifestyle and appealed to a younger group of seniors. On average, people enter nursing homes at 75, and the average age of people at The Cypress is 70, he says.

That accomplished, the next step was to attract an even-younger age group.

Foreseeing trends

Witte thinks the key is bringing the generations together in pedestrian-friendly communities with mixed land uses.

'It's healthier to have an intergenerational mix,' he says. 'You want to have access to children and other vital adults. The whole attitude and psychological makeup improves, the more of that you have.'

Especially in the country's suburbs, people have become more isolated, says Witte. Work schedules make it difficult for people to socialize on their front porches with their neighbors as their grandparents might have done.

When people are asked about the happiest times in their lives, Witte says they usually bring up visits to vacation resorts or college -- with its mixed-age dorm living -- and trips to Europe, valued because the pace of life seemed slower and more intimate. Consequently, new communities are pedestrian-friendly with some of the qualities of European villages, such as shops with homes above them. Whether it's The Villages, Del Webb, The Cypress of Hilton Head or newer European-style communities, developers are constantly fine-tuning their products to appeal to the new active retiree consumers and their demands for more living space, activities, fitness and technology.

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