By CATEY HILL
Whether you're an RV aficionado, a Tai Chi enthusiast or even an avowed nudist (gulp), a growing number of retirement communities are clamoring for your business with so-called "niche" retirement homes.
While retirement communities have always tried to woo older Americans with cushy extras like first-rate golf courses and five-star chefs, this newer breed of niche or "affinity" retirement communities (as industry pros call them) cater specifically to retirees who share a common interest, hobby or trait. And their ranks are growing. The number of university-based retirement communities, for example, targeted at alumni and intellectuals, has doubled in the last decade. In addition, there are now at least six retirement communities for gays and lesbians; at least one community that caters to Asian-Americans, with three more scheduled to open in the next five years; and a community for boomers interested in RVing. There are also an unknown number of communities for those interested in art or music. "These 'affinity communities' are one of the biggest trends in retirement living," says Andrew Carle, the founding director of the senior housing administration program at George Mason University.
Like many other trends in retirement living, the rise of niche communities is being driven by the aging of the roughly 78 million baby boomers. "When you've got that many people, there are bound to be a lot of niches that arise," says John Migliaccio, the director of research at the MetLife Mature Market Institute. What's more, he says, these boomers define themselves more by their interests and leisure pursuits than previous generations: "We set the record for embracing fad products, and that'll likely translate over into the niche retirement community as well," Carle says.
But choosing a retirement community isn't quite like adopting a pet rock, and there can be downsides to so much harmony. People who surround themselves by like-minded people are more likely to become more extreme in their views, according to recent research by Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein. There's also the risk of burn-out, says Carle, which can turn an enjoyable hobby into a drag. (Yes, there can be too much Tai Chi). And while the costs for most of many of these affinity communities are in line with regular retirement homes, some can get pricey: At some university-based communities and at least one gay and lesbian community, you'll have to fork over close to a million bucks just to join. As a result, retirement experts stress it's often more important to weigh the cost of the community -- and whether it offers access to adequate health care options -- than to focus primarily on the hobbies or niche it caters to.
Still, residents say the benefits of being around others who share their passions, or share their ethnic background or sexual orientation, far outweigh any negatives. Consider 77-year-old retiree Dave Huber, who says he selected Holy Cross Village at Notre Dame a decade ago partially because it offered access to college classes -- it is connected to three nearby universities -- something that he, a former professor at Indiana University, valued. He now cites being around other happily aging intellectuals as one of the reasons he's so happy: "I like that they're interested in learning and being involved in the community. It's wonderful to be around."
And if that's not your thing, don't worry: There may soon be a retirement community filled with people who feel the same way. Aegis Living, which owns a prominent Asian-American retirement community in Fremont, Calif., plans to open at least three more in the next five years, according to Jerry Meyer, the company's president and CEO. Oakmont Senior Living, which owns more than 30 retirement communities, is opening the doors of its first gay and lesbian community this week and is looking into building a Korean-American community in the next five years or so, says company owner Bill Gallaher. And PANDAbare, a nudist non-profit organization in Pasco County, Fla. -- which has the largest concentration of full-time nudists in the country, according to organization president Paul Brenot -- is currently developing plans to build a nudist assisted living facility, Brenot says.
SmartMoney.com looked at five "affinity" retirement communities that cater to boomers with shared interests or backgrounds.
When Aegis Living president Jerry Meyer saw the fountain that was to be the center of his first Asian American retirement community, Aegis Gardens, he loved it. But the Asian-American group that was consulting on the project said it should be torn down immediately. Turns out, "chi flows in circles," making the sharp right angles of the fountain a no-go, explains Meyer. "We tore it down and started over."
Founded in 2001, Aegis Gardens aims to bring China to its location in Fremont, Calif. The retirement community was constructed and decorated with the help of Feng Shui consultants, the staff speaks both Mandarin and Catonese, and residents can participate in daily Tai Chi classes starting at sunrise. That's not to say, Asian-American residents have always been happy with its services. Back in 2004, some residents complained to management about the number of Chinese employees being replaced by workers who only spoke English and other moves they deemed not culturally sensitive. A spokesman for Aegis Gardens says that these concerns were addressed to the satisfaction of residents. Prices for assisted living in Aegis Gardens begin at $122 per day, or more than $44,500 per year, slightly above the national average of $39,500.
For the artist
Located in Burbank, Calif., the Burbank Senior Artists Colony targets older Americans who want to paint well into their 60s and 70s or are looking to final write their big American novel. The 141-unit community has a 40-seat performance theater, artist studios and classrooms, a library and art display galleries. Rent runs between $1300 and $1900 per month, according to several online real estate listings, not including health care services. One drawback: For an artists' colony, the building design and apartments might seem a tab uninspired. And with no freestanding homes, options are limited to either a one- or two-bedroom apartment.
For RV aficionados
The Escapees CARE center, a non-profit assisted living facility for full-time RVers, in Livingston, Texas, offers 42 with built-in wheelchair ramps that attach to any mobile home. For about $1200 a month per couple (or $800 for a single), residents receive a campsite space, three meals and adult day care. In comparison, the average cost for an assisted living community is nearly $3,300 a month, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute (granted, at CARE, you need to provide your home -- the RV). Would-be residents should also consider that even large RVs rarely have more than 400 square feet of living space, making it difficult to outfit these homes with health-care equipment such as a hospital-style bed.
For the lesbian and gay community
At the RainbowVision community in Santa Fe, N.M., residents can enjoy a drag queen show or a Broadway singalong at the SilverStarlight Lounge and Cabaret, a workout in the Billie Jean King Fitness Center or a meal at the onsite restaurant Garbo's. The luxurious FountainGrove continuing care retirement community, meanwhile, offers fine bottles of wine from its chilled "wine cave," a "pet park" for dog walking and on-site chauffeurs for getting around town. But residents are not drawn to these lesbian and gay communities simply for the luxurious perks. "A lot of people have felt marginalized for many years, and they want to retire to a community where they feel comfortable being themselves," Carle says.
All the extras come at a steep cost. Prices for assisted living at RainbowVision range from $3900 to $4300 per month, plus an additional $320 to $1900 a month for medical care. Entrance fees at FountainGrove run from $295,500 to $925,500 and monthly fees start at about $2,500.
For the intellectual
University-based retirement communities focus on those aging Americans still looking to learn the pottery methods of the Mayans, study the theories behind quantum physics or the examine portrayal of women in Victorian literature. Residents typically have access to dozens of college classes and activities like free concerts and guest speakers, and often live right on campus or within walking distance. For example, Holy Cross Village at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., offers courses at the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary's College or Holy Cross College, as well as theater and music events at the universities.
But like some other niche communities, these homes aren't cheap. Entry fees run between $160,000 and $600,000 and monthly fees are from $2,000 to $7,000. At Holy Cross Village, the cost ranges from $120,000 to more than $400,000 for entrance fees and about $2,800 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.