For Modern Retirees, There's No Place Like Home

By Keith Schneider

Influenced by long-term trends in housing design, communications technology, medical care and the expectations of the largest retiree generation in United States history, the outlines of the next era of American retirement are gaining clarity across the country.

In Parker, Colo., 18 miles south of Denver, retirees are proposing what they call a senior cohousing community in a downtown neighborhood. When completed, perhaps next year, it will have shared common spaces for activities and about 40 condominium-style apartments at affordable prices.

In Boston, retirees in 2002 established a nonprofit service organization to provide rides, grocery shopping, repairs and social events for members of the nation’s first urban village.

Today, according to the Village-to-Village network, a national alliance of such groups, 100 other urban, suburban and rural villages — networks defined by more than geography — have formed nationwide. Members typically pay annual dues of $400 to $600, and some seek to recruit residents who have specific interests in art or music, a trend illustrated in Dustin Hoffman’s 2012 film “Quartet.”

The Parker and Boston projects reflect two of the most significant priorities that have consistently emerged in surveys of new retirees and adults who are approaching retirement: the desire to stay in one’s home as long as possible and the interest in living in big-city neighborhoods or suburban downtowns.

“We’re seeing the development of housing networks and social networks and service networks that provide the activities and support for many more people to lead the lives they want in their homes,” said Paul B. Kusserow, senior vice president and chief strategy and corporate development officer for Humana, the large Medicare insurance provider, which is based here.

Recognizing the strength of that trend, which is developing in an era of rising energy costs and static incomes, cities are building new neighborhood infrastructure — transit lines, public markets, parks and denser housing — that is accessible without driving.

Cincinnati and Grand Rapids, Mich., for instance, are among the dozens of small American cities that are building new rail and rapid bus transit lines that serve the growing number of young professionals, as well as middle-age and older residents moving to their downtowns.

“Young people and old people are sharing some of the same values about neighborhood living,” said Armando Carbonell, chairman of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a research group in Cambridge, Mass. “They share preferences in housing that are showing up in the market. It is a kind of living that is more central city, smaller units for smaller households.”

Software developers and engineers say they are making it easier for people to stay in their homes — urban or suburban — by inventing sensors, audio and visual equipment, and communications devices to provide care remotely. Much of the data, video and sound is accessible online, enabling instant contact with residents, and providing peace of mind for friends and family.

“In 20 years, many more people will stay in their homes who need help but don’t need to be in nursing care or assisted living,” said Casey Clements, the managing director of Rest Assured, which installs sensing and communications devices and assigns a trained staff member to provide what it calls telecare from its offices in Lafayette, Ind.

Founded in 2006 as a division of ResCare, based in Louisville and one of the nation’s largest in-home care providers, Rest Assured serves 600 clients in 16 states for an average cost of $1,100 a month, Mr. Clements said.

“Technology is changing in our favor,” he said. “Costs are coming down and these tools are already easy for clients to operate. We see many, many more people turning to this kind of system so that they can stay in their homes.”

The goal of remaining at home also has attracted the interest of builders. In 2011, the Lennar Corporation, one of the country’s largest builders, began offering floor plans for new multigenerational suburban houses in California and Arizona that incorporate separate living quarters.

The first-floor apartments — which include small kitchens — initially could be used by a boomerang college student or an aging parent, and then by a live-in caregiver.

Master-planned retirement communities, which serve what the market calls “active independent adults,” are being built much closer to downtowns because customer surveys clearly indicate that buyers expect to continue working in their retirement years.

“With future baby boomers working part time, starting new businesses or new careers, it’s not surprising that they want to stay connected to their current community but still take advantage of an active lifestyle,” said Deborah Meyer, chief marketing officer for the PulteGroup, a national home builder based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Pulte is the parent company of Del Webb, which in 1960 founded Sun City near Phoenix, described as the country’s first large-scale, age-restricted retirement community.

Few places in the United States are studying the stages of aging, market trends and housing more intently than Louisville, a northern Kentucky city of 602,000 residents.

In the last two decades a thriving “aging and wellness” sector developed here, with health professionals and business executives from leading companies in insurance, senior housing, medical devices, software and nursing care. It employs about 20,000 people, according to city figures.

Much of the research and business models under development in Louisville focus on what some specialists call the outsourced wing of the retirement and health sector, where retirees rely on others providing services: assisted living, nursing care, hospitalization and rehabilitation.

The ideas being tested and deployed here encompass things like the colors of the paint, carpet and fabrics used in Signature Healthcare’s state-of-the-art nursing facilities, online-guided robots for remote doctor visits and high-definition communication systems in the Trilogy Health Service assisted-living centers here.

Such innovations are also applicable in many other settings, said John P. Reinhart, president and chief executive of InnovateLTC, a research and marketing group. Established with seed funding from the state, Signature Healthcare and the University of Louisville, InnovateLTC fosters marketing and collaboration among companies based here — the corporate hub of the nation’s largest cluster of service companies for the aging, with revenue exceeding $44 billion annually.

Nearly 42 million people in the United States are 65 or older, according to the Census Bureau. By 2050, one of every five Americans — 88.5 million people — will be 65 or older, according to a 2009 study by the Congressional Research Service. In 1950, 12.4 million Americans were 65 or older, or fewer than one in 12 American citizens.

“We already know that in a decade there won’t be enough caregivers to help the number of retirees that need support,” Mr. Reinhart said. “We’re finding other ways to interact and provide care. That involves new technology. It also involves new ways to organize ourselves in neighborhoods and new relationships with people to provide care. We are going to develop a new definition of who we consider family.”

The influence of Louisville’s wellness sector has permeated surprising corners of this city’s business community, like interior design.

Douglas Riddle, a designer and president of Bittners, an upscale furnishings and custom-crafted furniture company founded here in 1854, has helped several clients “build a house they tell me they’re determined to be carried out of.”

Mr. Riddle counsels clients and their architects on incorporating wider doors, fabric patterns and colors that will not confuse people with memory loss and dementia, and even extra studs in bathroom walls for the day when handrails are needed. 

“I have several clients who are physicians,” Mr. Riddle said. “I ask them questions about what to anticipate, and I’ve developed expertise in designing homes for people who really mean it when they say they won’t be leaving.” 

For people who need more care, Louisville is thinking about that, too. One leading company in the aging sector here is Atria Senior Living, founded in 1998, which owns and manages 127 retiree or assisted-living communities.

One of its newest centers is Atria on the Hudson in Ossining, N.Y., a community where residents in one- and two-bedroom units share so many places to meet and muse — cafes, a library, a theater, gardens — that the campus resembles a pedigree prep school.

Another Atria community is West 86, a luxury retiree residence on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that provides owners access to three restaurants, a spa, rooftop fitness center, a library and numerous cultural and social events.

“What we’ve done in both residences is respond to a need in the market that will only grow,” said Mark Alexander, Atria’s senior vice president for redevelopment.

Masonic Homes of Kentucky, based in Louisville, takes a more comprehensive approach. Its Continual Care Retirement Community mixes a multistory condominium for younger and active retirees with assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers on a campus close to the city’s center.

The idea is that active residents have easier access to the city’s arts and recreational institutions and will never have to move again as they age.