Forget the Springfield Retirement Castle. With no desire to leave their homes, a growing number of older Americans are banding together to create retirement communities in their existing neighborhoods. Better yet, many are finding governments and non-profits willing to provide many of the same services retirement homes charge thousands for.
There's a name for these new pockets of gray: naturally-occurring retirement communities (or NORCs, as they're known among jargon-happy researchers). The definition is vague a report by the Congressional Research Service says they're "communities with a large proportion of older persons [typically 55 to 65 and up] residing within a specified geographic area," which could mean anything from a zip code to an apartment building.
And while these communities have been around for decades, they're proliferating with the aging baby boom. Official data are spotty communities have only just started to identify themselves this way but about one in three Americans over 50 lives in a community that could qualify, according to an AARP survey. There are still less than 100 of these communities that get government funding for programs to support residents (things like free health care or low-cost continuing education courses), but even that number has grown sixfold since the mid-1990s. What's more, "the aging population will likely lead to a rapid increase in the number of NORCs in the coming years," says John Migliaccio, the director of research for the MetLife Mature Market Institute.
As a phenomenon, these new communities are a result of changing demographics, market forces and boomer individuality. In 2009, one in every eight people -- roughly 13% of the population -- was 65 or older and roughly 10,000 people will turn 65 each day for the next 18.5 years. Meanwhile, the housing market is still depressed, leaving some homeowners unable to sell, and others unwilling. Still more Americans don't have the money to move, and some just don't want to: More than three out of four people 45 and older say they have a strong desire to stay in their home for as long as possible, a 2010 AARP study found.
In response to this trend, two paths for getting lower-cost services for aging residents have emerged. The first is to get funding from the government or a nonprofit for a "NORC supportive services program," which provides low-cost or free health, social and educational services to residents. These programs, which often require a community "match" such as funding or resources from a local hospital or housing company, were created to help provide preventive health care and wellness services to residents who might have a hard time paying for or accessing these kinds of services on their own, says Fredda Vladeck, the director of the aging in place initiative at the United Hospital Fund and one of the founders of NORC programs. The second is to collect membership dues from other residents to pay for services the community wants -- anything from a concierge service to a group-rate at the drycleaners -- in what's called the "villages concept."
The supportive-service program model is usually the better-funded option. These programs may include free regular access to a social worker who can offer counseling and help with securing benefits and entitlements; continuing education or computer courses; group exercise classes or outings; and visiting nurse or social adult daycare services, says Amy Chalfy, the director of programs for the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, which sponsors five NORC support programs. "These supportive services are very community based," she says. "Each program responds to local community needs and involves a partnership of residents, agencies and funders."
Granted, these services can be hard to access. The governments and non-profits that provide them are often bureaucratic and exhausting to navigate; more likely, many communities are too disorganized to realize such services are available and apply. Plus, "government funding to seed or promote NORC programs at the national and state levels has been limited," says Robert Goldberg, the senior director of legislative affairs for the Jewish Federations of North America, which helped establish about 60 NORC programs across the country. In fact, after three consecutive years of support, federal funding for these programs was cut for 2011, according to Peggie Rice, a spokesperson for the Administration on Aging. And philanthropic funding can be hard to get and hard to find, and each organization may have different parameters for who qualifies.
Still, experts say it can be worth it. One NORC program in St. Louis that serves 1,600 total residents received two federal grants -- one in 2002 for $1.3 million and one in 2005 for more than $220,000 -- which helped bring fitness classes, concierge services, home repair help, blood pressure screenings, educational programs, fitness classes, financial management consultations, and more to the residents. To learn more about NORC supportive services programs, check out NORCBlueprint.org.
The "villages concept" is usually the easier - though more expensive - path to getting services. In this model, members pay annual fees to cover services like snow shoveling or group workout classes. Residents of the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston, for example, recently created the Beacon Hill Village, charging $890 per household in annual membership fees. These fees help members get free rides to the grocery store, access to a volunteer for help with routine tasks around your home and discounts on services like personal training and plumbing. Across the nation, village membership fees typically run between $250 and $1000 per year, and there are currently about 60 to 70 villages in operation, says Vladeck.
The pros of the village concept are that the sheer number of residents and their close proximity allows the village to take advantage of group discounts and share services that would cost significantly more if individuals had to each pay for or access them on their own, says Don Armstrong, the director of home care and community based services for the Jewish Family Service in the Seattle area. And because funding for the village can be more limited since residents pay for it themselves, the services are also typically more limited, says Vladeck. To learn more about creating your own village, check out VTVNetwork.org.
Corrections & Amplifications
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported details of the NORC program in St. Louis.