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Senior Housing: 55-Plus Communities May be a Marketing Success, but Many Retirees Prefer the Benefits of More Diverse Living

As the baby boomers age, the demand for new, more exciting forms of senior living is mushrooming all across America – particularly in Florida, where the master-planned community The Villages is now home to more than 50,000 people. In fact, according to this intriguing article from NextAvenue, The Villages is the nation’s fastest growing community, based on 2020 Census data. But is this kind of age-segregated senior living with the promise of a perpetual vacation really the best we can do? NextAvenue writer Paul Irving says no. Many seniors prefer the benefits of a more vibrant, diverse, and intergenerational environment.

Golf Carts, Sunshine – but Not Much Diversity

Irving speaks with authority about aging issues: he chairs the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute, and teaches at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology. “In a demographically changing and urbanizing America,” Irving writes in his NextAvenue article, The Villages represents “a dominantly white, politically conservative stronghold” which “lures retirees with warm winters, pastel-hued homes, golf carts and pickleball courts.” And that, he implies, is not necessarily a good thing.

Nevertheless, the success of The Villages is attracting competitive corporate attention. “Reports say that Disney may soon create a similar age-restricted community in Florida,” the article states. “It is not surprising that the creative minds behind a ‘fantasyland’ for kids might be eyeing a lifestyle development for older adults as its next frontier.”

Irving doesn’t mask his disdain. “We are all free to choose how and where we want to live, of course,” he writes, “and new housing solutions for the rapidly growing population of older Americans are needed. But to be honest, if communities like The Villages represent the future of aging, please count me and many of us out.”

The Appeal of Age-Restricted Living

Despite his work at the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute, in which he promotes the benefits of diverse cities and intergenerational living, Irving understands the appeal of age-restricted communities. He notes, “These places can seem safe choices in a youth-focused America that stigmatizes aging, regularly pushes older adults to the sidelines and sees getting older as defined by dependency and decline.”

These cultural attitudes were highlighted powerfully during the COVID-19 pandemic, when memes like “OK boomer” spread across social media, so the idea of more insular, comfortable communities for older adults seems like a logical choice. And yet, Irving—and others like him—see age-restriction as a missed opportunity for connection, shared experience, and learning through diversity.

Sun City Was the Forerunner in “Vacation Living” for Seniors

The Villages as a lifestyle choice isn’t a new idea, of course. Sun City in Arizona—a 55+ community founded by Del Webb—marketed itself as a retirement paradise. In the years since, it has become a locus for older adults keen to live out their retirement years in leisure, surrounded by likeminded people. There are now at least nine Sun City locations in the U.S.

Irving asks: “But is a town without the sounds of children and a diversity of races and styles really a paradise?” Older adults are increasingly answering that question: no. More and more retirees are recognizing that intergenerational living is deeply and increasingly valuable on both a community and a national level.

“They recognize that ageism will not be defeated by a retreat to age-segregated corners,” Irving says, “but only by engagement, collaboration and dialogue across age, race and class divides. They believe that there is more to graying than playing.”

Options for Multigenerational Retirement Living

Do options exist for intergenerational living? Thankfully, yes, and more and more options are popping up everywhere. Along with a recent New York Times article explaining the phenomenon, Irving provides some great examples in his article, and we’ll list a few below.

Some of the fastest-growing options are retirement communities and co-housing units based on university campuses, with notable locations in Newton, Massachusetts and Tempe, Arizona, among many others. In these communities, older residents live and study alongside students in their teens and twenties, improving the “physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and vocational wellness” of all concerned. College towns across the U.S. offer programs linking older adults with students to the research-backed benefit of all, so if you live near to a college town, a little research may turn up surprising results.

Outside of university living, regenerative communities are also emerging, such as the Modern Elder Academy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Launched by Chip Conley, these communities are meant to be built “with a goal of cultivating purpose and intergenerational bonds.”

Crucial connections can also be formed between older adults and foster families in need of resources that only intergenerational living can provide. Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon—as an example—offers affordable living that “promotes interaction, connection, and mutual support” between retirees and families who crave their empathy and experience.

And for those with a desire to live out their older years doing good work for the environment, there are sustainable options like the Eco Village in Ithaca, New York and Agrihood in Santa Clara, California, which mixes housing with a working organic farm that provides produce for the surrounding community.

What the Success of The Villages Makes Clear

There’s nothing inherently wrong with places like The Villages. Its success shows that there is clearly a desire among older adults to retire somewhere safe and comfortable, and for many that means a more insular community. But, as Irving notes, “many of us feel a need for more.”

As the yearning for multi-generational, meaningful living spaces grows, Irving speculates that developers and innovators will rise to meet the demand. And as they do, we will start to see more and more options emerge for retirees. No matter what your hopes and dreams for your retirement, the likelihood is that a community is out there waiting for you and your unique experience, skills, and personality. 

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Photo Credit: Nazareth College on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nazareth_college/4406782084/)

(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)