Finding Communities That Connect and Nurture the Like-Minded
Katherine Taylor for The New York Times
Jon Allen lived most of his life very much out of the closet. He didn’t want to go back in when he grew older.
“After you live in Key West for 20 years, you’re out comfortably every minute of every day,” said Mr. Allen, 72. “The fear is not that you’re going to move into a place that’s homophobic but that at some point you might become fairly helpless and that you’ll come across some random odd caregiver who makes it his or her purpose in life to make you miserable or to let you know you’re a sinner or whatever.”
So in May, he packed up his belongings and moved into a three-bedroom apartment at Fountaingrove Lodge, a continuing-care retirement community in Santa Rosa, Calif., in the heart of wine country. It was costly — there was a $740,000 entrance fee, some of which he’ll get back if he leaves, or his heirs will if he dies — along with a $5,150 monthly fee, which covers insurance, taxes, utilities, weekly housekeeping and about 25 meals a month. But it was appealing on many levels.
For starters, it is an L.G.B.T.-focused community, which he liked. (Straight people are allowed.) For Mr. Allen, it was also a memory-free zone, in a part of the world he and his husband, who died last year, had never visited together. “I’m not trying to forget, but living with memories is hard sometimes,” said Mr. Allen, who still runs a hotel called Island House in Key West, Fla.
Fountaingrove is one of a number of niche retirement homes catering to people with similar interests and passions. Although some special-interest communities have been around for a while — the Lillian Booth Actors Home, for example, an assisted-living and nursing care facility for entertainment professionals, in Englewood, N.J., was founded in 1902 — they have become more popular over the last decade.
“Retirement communities were where you used to go because you had to go. You were looking for services and someone to take care of you,” said Maria B. Dwight, chief executive of Gerontological Services, which studies housing for the over-55 set. “Now older people want to be part of the action. They want to be playing and singing in the chorus, not watching — painting the pictures, not just going to look at them.”
“I think of these as flavors of ice cream,” said Andrew J. Carle, director of George Mason University’s program in senior housing administration and a former hospital and senior-housing executive. “When the boomer generation ages, they just want more flavors on the shelf. They’re not going to be satisfied with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.”
One type of innovation is the university-based retirement community, in which residents live near a college campus, take classes and also have access to skilled nursing care. While exact statistics aren’t available, Mr. Carle estimates that there are about two dozen such communities.
Three years ago, Dorothy Adelman, 99, moved into Lasell Village, on the campus of Lasell College, in Newton, Mass. All 210 residents of the village, which opened in 2000, are required to participate in 450 hours of education a year — about nine hours a week. (Cultural and fitness activities count.)
“The courses were the thing that I was most interested in,” said Ms. Adelman, who has taken classes in politics, Shakespeare and the Bible, and teaches art once a week.
A handful of senior-oriented co-housing communities have formed in the last decade, said Raines Cohen, a certified senior adviser and co-housing coach in Berkeley, Calif. They are similar to communes in that they are often formed by groups of individuals rather than developers, but there are separate homes and amenities for individual owners and no communal business, just “the opportunity to share and connect when they want to,” Mr. Cohen said.
Communities have sprung up for, say, those of Indian heritage (ShantiNiketan, in Tavares, Fla.) or retired letter carriers (Nalcrest, in Polk County, Fla.) or those who share a passion for recreational vehicles (at the Escapees Care Center, in Livingston, Tex., you can live in your R.V. and get three meals a day, along with medical treatment).
Those with a penchant for boats, motorcycles and old cars might be interested in the Lake Weir Preserve, in Ocklawaha, Fla., which has special storage space to house all the toys. And the ElderSpirit Community at Trailview in Abingdon, Va., welcomes anyone committed to spiritual growth.
Jacqueline Benoit, 85, moved into the NoHo Senior Artists Colony apartments, in North Hollywood Calif., in November. The majority of the 125 residents, who must be at least 62, have an interest in the arts. Residents can take classes in subjects like collage construction, creative dance and screenwriting, and there is a 78-seat theater on the premises. (It’s run by a professional theater company, though some residents are members.) The complex also has a swimming pool, a fitness studio, a billiard room, a literary studio and a lounge.
“It’s an answered prayer for a lot of people in the business who want to be around other people in the business and want to keep active,” said Ms. Benoit, who has appeared in a supporting role on “2 Broke Girls” and played the queen of England on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” She added, “You’ve got to keep moving or else you kind of fall apart.”
In addition to the amenities, she likes the networking. “The person in the next apartment is a talent agent, and the other side is an actor. We all have so much in common,” said Ms. Benoit, who pays $1,700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with a small, west-facing balcony where she can watch the sunset.
Then there are those that encourage intergenerational activities, like NewBridge on the Charles, which opened in June 2009. Today, about 600 people live on 162 acres in Dedham, Mass.; the Rashi School, a K-8 Reform Jewish day school, is right on the premises.
“The powers that be are very enthusiastic about our multigenerational activities, which are numerous and very successful,” said Sybil Gladstone, 91, a former English teacher, guidance counselor and journalist, who has lived at NewBridge with her husband, Richard, for five years. Ms. Gladstone, who has three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, volunteers once a week, helping children with reading challenges. In turn, the children teach the retirees about subjects like technology. “It benefits all of us. The kids learn from us, and we learn from them.”
But these communities can be expensive, and they often require a deposit upfront. The entrance fee for the independent-living apartments at NewBridge, for example, ranges from $600,000 to $1.3 million, in addition to monthly expenses. The entrance fee, which is held in reserve, is 90 percent refundable.
Entrance fees at Fountaingrove typically range from $147,800 to $829,000. But the community also offers six units with entrance fees of $10,000 to $20,000 (with slightly higher monthly service fees, $4,900 to $7,900, based on square footage).
Experts say it’s important to research in advance to make sure the communities have their financial houses in order. In most states, companies must present a disclosure statement before a lease is signed, Ms. Dwight, of Gerontological Services, said. “Nonprofits also file a 990 form with the I.R.S. It is important to do one’s homework, or have a lawyer, financial adviser or accountant work with you.”
Max Greenberg, a senior-living adviser and senior-real-estate specialist in Palo Alto, Calif., says he expects the trend of specialty retirement communities to keep growing. “Baby boomers won’t want to move into typical ‘old folks homes,’ no matter how nice they look,” he said. “My prediction is that we will see more specialty communities popping up, including ones run by large national fraternities and sororities, allowing seniors to once again experience the partying, socialization and spirit of frat life they had in college. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Grateful Dead-oriented community sprout up in the Bay Area, either.”