If there's one thing older folks are said to dread, it's the prospect of a retirement community--that residential departure lounge from this life to whatever comes next. Filled with infirm neighbors and too-little stimulation, they are widely seen as one step above a nursing home--if only because you maintain your own little home--but not much more. That, at least, is the way they used to be.
As with so much else in the baby boomers' long march from birth to senescence, retirement communities are being reinvented--and with good reason. Only a generation or two ago, simple actuarial arithmetic didn't give most retirees a whole lot of years to fill after they quit work. Those with the means would fly south or west for a few quiet years of shuffleboard or bingo at places like Del Webb's famed Sun City developments in Arizona before passing into dependent old age. But the health and wealth that many boomers are bringing into retirement are giving them 25 years or more to play with, not to mention the resources to spend that time well. For them, an early dinner and an evening of board games is not going to be enough.
To entice today's more youthful retirees, who may be working part time or even full time at a hobby business, developers are rethinking all aspects of the classic adult-retirement village. They are building what they call active-adult communities for folks as young as 55 in places like Colorado, Michigan and New Jersey to accommodate those who want to stay immersed in the world, even as they step back from some of its daily nuisances. The new developments ensure mobility, with access to mass transit and garages for residents who own their own cars, which make visits to family members or commutes into town easy. They are also offering a stunning mix of activities, including such options as kayaking and skydiving. They include spa-level fitness and wellness centers, college-level academic courses, resort-level concierge services and gourmet dining.
Such changes are the fruits of both good planning and good business sense. Developers have had six decades to anticipate the boomers' retirement, and they have long been plotting ways to woo them. Lately, they've been putting their plans into action. "The senior-housing business has changed dramatically over the last seven or eight years," says David Schless, president of the American Senior Housing Association. Nearly half of retirement-community managers intend to at least upgrade their fitness centers this year or next, and a similar percentage said they had already done so in the previous two years, according to a survey by the International Council on Active Aging.
Not all active-adult communities are the same, of course, and in many cases, their location determines what they offer. Trilogy at the Vineyards, near San Francisco, for example, has a wine-country feel to attract locals who don't want to give up the Napa lifestyle and émigrés who want to adopt it. Anthem Ranch, near Denver, takes advantage of its ski-country site, making it easy for residents to hit the slopes or hike the mountains.
St. Joe Co., which develops retirement communities and other residences, is building on thousands of acres in northwest Florida and stresses the connectivity of its homes--and not just high-speed Internet but also proximity to transportation, including an airport. Both are essential for people who continue to work, and for a new breed that Jerry Ray, senior vice president of St. Joe, calls "splitters"--people with two full-time residences, one in the South and one elsewhere. St. Joe even donated 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) to a new international airport near Panama City, Fla., which will serve both locals and retirees expected to move to the area.
If you think an active-adult community might be for you:
EXAMINE THE FEATURES. Does the community offer enough of the activities you enjoy? How well received are the programs? It'll be a lonely scuba trip if you're the only one who signs up.
THINK AHEAD. Some day you'll value a first-floor bedroom, large handles on cabinets and being near a hospital. Also, if you work, the fitness-center hours and other activities may not suit your schedule.
VISIT MORE THAN ONCE. Don't take a sales agent's word for it; visit residents and ask about the things that matter to you. While you're at it, take note of their age. The last thing you want is to end up being the lone kid (or geezer) on the block.