Retirement Communities

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Retirement communities are age-homogeneous living environments for older persons, almost all of whom are retired. The communities usually have defined boundaries, and often have age restrictions. Retirement communities come in many varieties and sizes, and no one type fits all older adults. The variety occurs because older Americans are a heterogeneous population, and those who choose living in retirement communities represent a broad spectrum of older Americans. How can one classify the variety of communities? One major axis is a planning criterion: Was the community planned or unplanned?

Planned retirement communities include: Leisure Oriented Retirement Communities (LORCs); Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) and various kinds of Public Housing (PH). Unplanned retirement communities are Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs).

Within these types of retirement communities there are other major defining characteristics. A prime characteristic is the cost of buying or renting a dwelling unit. Some retirement communities such as public housing have residents of low or moderate income, while at the other end of the income and asset scale are half-million-dollar homes for affluent elderly persons. The economic level of a retirement community will determine the kind of housing, the quality of the building and facilities, and the services and amenities that may be available to the residents. Thus retirement communities vary from a modest mobile home to a luxurious five-bedroom house with a three-car garage and a view of a golf course. Obviously one must be specific when one generalizes about retirement communities in contemporary America.

There are some extremely large retirement communities in the Sun Belt that have upwards of forty thousand residents. These large communities are broken down into neighborhoods to give more of a small-town experience. The large communities contain almost all the facilities needed by most residentsshopping, banking, medical facilities, recreational areas, and more so that ones needs can be met in the immediate community. It is a safe and protected lifestyle. Other retirement communities are smaller in size and are adjacent to towns or cities, or are in rural areas where residents must leave their campuses for many of their needs. However, retirees in such settings may have the advantage of a feeling of closeness to their fellow residents.

Planned retirement communities

Leisure-oriented Retirement Communities (LORCs) emphasize the provision of the opportunities, services, and facilities to pursue a wide variety of leisure activities. A great deal of personal support may be found in the LORCs, but supportive activities tend to be informal. Gerontologists have been studying these kinds of communities for over a half century. The early communities were often affiliated with fraternal or religious organizations and unions, and usually provided low-cost housing and activities for the residents, who were often members of the sponsoring organization. Around 1960 there was a sudden spurt in the development of LORCs as a result of changing attitudes toward retirement and an increase in the number of healthy older persons with adequate income to pursue an active lifestyle.

Entrepreneurial developers began to establish LORCs in the Sun Belt states in the 1960s. More luxurious, club-like environments had facilities that were designed to encourage and enhance leisure pursuits. Gradually there was a shift from modest-priced housing for retirees to luxury homes. This has resulted in the creation of two broad types of LORCs: those for lower income levels that provide low cost housing and a limited range of activities, and those for affluent residents that have a rich program of activities, services, and programs. Some of the more affluent communities may have multiple golf courses, a large auditorium to attract celebrity entertainers, and so forth.

As residents have aged in all kinds of communities, there has been an increasing awareness among both residents and developers that attention must be paid to the health and physical needs of residents who are aging in place.

Another important trend among the planned retirement communities are the development of life-care retirement communities and continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). Both the for-profit and nonprofit segments of the industry have moved into development of this kind of retirement community. The early forms of life care communities were denominational in origin and were planned to care for specific groups of individuals. The life care aspect usually required that the resident give a large percentage of his or her assets to the community for housing and life care.

As CCRCs developed and spread, more flexible arrangements have developed. Residents pay a specified entrance fee and a monthly fee, with a variety of arrangements as to whether some of the entrance fee is recovered when the person dies. The idea governing CCRCs was a self-insured health care component. The CCRC receives revenues in advance of the services required, and the resident is assured housing and life care in a variety of settings and the availability of assisted living and nursing home care. Applicants for residency in CCRCs are required to provide a medical history, have a pre-entrance physical examination, and furnish detailed financial information about assets, liabilities, and income.

CCRCs are a form of long-term care insurance, with some states assigning regulatory authority to the State Department of Insurance. The CCRC business has become more sophisticated and tries to predict long-term costs accurately. Thus there is a need to have a rather stringent health and economic criteria to avoid financial and service delivery problems. Acturial predictions must be carefully utilized in order to assure both solvency and the guarantee of housing and long-term care if it is required.

Unplanned communities

An overlooked type of retirement communities is the most prevalent: Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCS). Hunt and others (1994) offer three reasons why such communities tend to be neglected: they are not planned or designed; there are no age restrictions; and they are not advertised as retirement communities by the residents, owners, or managers. NORCS may be in a city, a small town, or a rural area. They can be apartment complexes, a changing neighborhood, or a vacation area. A pressing problem facing NORCs and other communities without some form of assisted living is how to accommodate the changing needs of the residents as they age in place.

Migration patterns

Retirement communities, particularly those in the Sun Belt states, have a considerable number of residents who are called snowbirds: residents who come to a warmer climate during the winter and then move back to a cooler climate in spring and summer, or become traveling retirees. The snowbird phenomenon includes as many as half of the residents in some communities. Generally the higher the income level of a community the larger the number of snowbirds. Another trend that has been observed is that as persons become older they are less likely to migrate seasonally. Some residents find the annual treks south and north too difficult and they tend to age in place in a warmer climate. Snowbirds also find that as they become older their roots become deeper in a retirement community, and the annual migration home to the cold is less attractive.

Statistics on retirement communities

Statistics about all the various kinds of retirement communities are not precise because of the diversity of sponsorship, geographical spread, and the types of housing provided. However, the following are some statistics that are approximate and provide benchmarks for the retirement community market at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the only federal agency that gathers statistics on retirement communities that are part of the public housing programs. The HUD retirement communities are subsidized, rental communities that are organized under eight different federal programs. In 1998 there were approximately five million housing units that were HUD sponsored and approximately eleven million persons lived in all these projects. Approximately one-third of the households had elderly residents and thus about four million persons lived in this type of retirement community.

The American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging estimated that at the end of 1999 there were approximately 2100 CCRCs in the United States. If one assumes that each CCRC has about 350 residents, the number of older persons who lived in this kind of retirement community numbered about 735,000.

Assisted Living Facilities, a type of retirement community, vary considerably in size, services, and costs. In September 1999 the Assisted Living Federation of America offered a broad estimate that there were twenty to thirty thousand facilities in the United States. If one assumes the midpoint of the estimate and makes the additional assumption that there are about forty residents in each assisted living facility, then this kind of retirement community would house about one million residents.

The number of LORCs and the number of residents living in them are difficult to estimate because they are not licensed like CCRCs or Assisted Living Facilities. Thus there is no central statistical gathering organizationfederal, state, or privateto provide estimates. A considerable proportion of LORCs are in unincorporated areas of the states, thus many residents of this kind of retirement community would be counted as rural dwellers, but have a somewhat urban lifestyle.

In November 1999 HUD published a detailed report on the housing conditions and needs of older Americans. The report to Congress was a special supplement to the American Housing Survey of 1995. The survey reported that approximately 6 percent of the elderly persons (sixty-two and older) lived in manufactured homes, mostly in rural areas. A considerable number of these elderly residents lived in retirement communities, and it is estimated they may constitute about one million persons.

Retirement communities in other countries

The United States has more retirement communities per capita than other countries. The reasons for this situation include availability of undeveloped land for communities, Sun Belt areas that are attractive, the wide acceptance of physical mobility, and a standard of living for many people that enables mobility and in some cases permits a second home in a retirement community.

Other countries have adapted to the demographic trends of an increased life expectancy, and to pension plans that enable older persons to retire and have an adequate income. Canada has some retirement communities in British Columbia, a province that includes areas with a milder climate than most of Canada. There is also a large seasonal migration of Canadians to retirement communities in warmer climates in the United States. Australia has a thriving retirement community industry in which retirees move to small communities located on the outskirts of the large cities. Retired Europeans who live in northern countries are often seasonal migrants who live in enclaves of fellow countrymen during the winter: e.g., Germans come to Spain, British to Portugal and so forth.

The political economy and retirement communities

Retirement communities are integrated in the governmental and economic systems and they shape the environment in which the communities are embedded. On the local level, the linkage between a retirement community and the adjacent city or surrounding country varies considerably. How are land use law and zoning regulations enforced? Does the retirement community have its own water and sewer system or does it use the services provided by a municipality or water/sewer district? Uncertainty and risk are involved in the development and operation of retirement communities. They do serve a broad spectrum of income levels, and retirement communities are also congruent with basic American values: thrift, self-reliance, independence, material comfort, and a mixture of freedom and conformity.

In both LORCs and CCRCs the residents expect the delivery of programs, services, activities, and the security that was promised. They may register complaints about the services and programs, and they do so. In CCRCs it is very difficult for residents to take their business elsewhere for they would lose some or all of their initial deposit. This lack of a genuine market force for the residents is one reason some states have created social control mechanisms to ensure the delivery of services, and to avoid the exploitation of older people. The residents lack of market freedom does not mean that the managers operate in social and economic environment devoid of risk and uncertainty. Looking to the future of retirement communities raises the important issue of how the baby boomer generation will be involved in retirement communities. The first cohort is now ten or fifteen years from traditional retirement. Baby boomers are not homogeneous and one must consider the variations in economic, political and social characteristics. However, when the baby boom generation retires, the small percentage that chooses to relocate will have a wide choice of retirement communities. New environments will probably be initiated and there will be a competitive situation in which particular communities will compete. A changing economic and political situation adds uncertainty to the level and stability of pension incomes. The behavior of the housing and equity markets also adds additional uncertainty to the housing choices and the future of retirement communities for the boomers.

The pros and cons of retirement communities

Although millions of older persons live in retirement communities of the various kinds described here, some people regard the lifestyle negatively. The development of the retirement community industry is controversial. Proponents and opponents of retirement communities point up the positive strengths and weaknesses of retirement communities. One of the most cogent analyses of both sides of the argument is found in Golant. Some of the positive aspects are that age-dense communities provide older residents with opportunities for friendship with persons of similar interests and backgrounds. Residents can create their own social worlds, and can offer help and companionship to each other. The residents approve overwhelmingly of the ordered and predictable setting and lifestyle, and the village atmosphere. The many clubs and recreational facilities are the deciding factor for some. Other persons value the security of living in a protected environment. Older people who can no longer drive find the transportation facilities a crucial consideration.

Other seniors move to a location near their children but do not want to be a burden to their families. They value the services available in many retirement communities. Their families, in turn, have the assurance that there is immediate help for the older person in case of an emergency. Pressure from children is often the deciding factor in the decision to move to a retirement community.

Most persons, however, do not want to move to a retirement community. Some cannot bear the thought of moving away from their friends and familiar pattern of life. Others cannot face the disruption of moving from their home and downsizing. They cannot adapt to new circumstances but wait until the death of a spouse or a medical condition forces them to consider alternatives to their housing situation. Some older persons feel there is a stigma in living with other people of their age group. They consider it to be healthier to live in an age-heterogeneous community. Perhaps one explanation might be that they seek to deny their own aging.

On the negative side the critics argue that some persons object to the planned nature of the structure and the activities of the communities. Others view the communities as geriatric ghettos, and think it is undesirable to live in a community without a mixture of ages. Persons who dislike retirement communities are suspicious of management and the idea that cliques or factions develop among the residents and influence the programs. Members of some ethnic and racial minorities may find living in a retirement community unacceptable because of the small representation of their population in these communities.

Streib has stated that the various forms of retirement communities are an expression of the pluralism in American society. Although many personsboth old and youngwould not choose to live in age-homogeneous communities, other persons currently prefer them. And for the foreseeable future, many thousands will choose the kind of lifestyle and housing arrangements that the variety of retirement communities provides their residents.

Gordon F. Streib

See also Continuing Care Retirement Communities; Housing; Living Arrangements; Migration, Geographic Mobility, and Distribution.


The Directory of Retirement Facilities, 1993. Baltimore: HIA, Inc., 1992.

Folts, W. E., and Steib, G. F. Leisure-oriented Retirement Communities. In Housing and the Aging Population: Options for the New Century. Edited by W. E. Folts and D. E. Yeatts. New York: Garland, 1994. Pages 121144.

Hunt, M. E.; Feldt, A. G.; Marans, R. W.; Pastalan, L. A.; and Vakalo, K. L. Retirement Communities: An American Original. New York: Hawthorne Press, 1984.

Hunt, M. E.; Merrill, J. L.; and Gilker, C. M. Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities in Urban and Rural Settings. In Housing and the Aging Population: Options for the New Century. Edited by W. E. Folts and D. E. Yeatts. New York: Garland, 1994. Pages 107120.

Golant, S. M. Housing Americas Elderly: Many Possibilities/Few Choices. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992. See chaps. 3, 4, and 11.

Mangum, W. P. Planned Housing for the Elderly Since 1950: History, Policies, and Practices. In Housing and the Aging Population: Options for the New Century. Edited by W. E. Folts and D. E. Yeatts. New York: Garland 1994. Pages 2558.

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Osgood, N. J. Senior Settlers: Social Integration in Retirement Communities. New York: Praeger, 1982.

Pearce, B. W. Senior Living Communities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Sherwood, S.; Ruchlin, H. S.; Sherwood, C. C.; and Morris, S. A. Continuing Care Retirement Communities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Streib, G. F. Retirement Communities: Linkages to the Locality, State, and Nation. Journal of Applied Gerontology 9 (1990): 405419.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Housing Our Elders: A Report Card in the Housing Conditions and Needs of Elder Americans. Washington, D.C.: Office of Policy and Development, 1999.