The New Retirement: A Vital Mix of Learning and Love
Business + Economy

The New Retirement: A Vital Mix of Learning and Love

Ashby Village

When it came time for Karen Gotting, age 71 and her husband, Karl, age 75, to leave their home in Lansing, Michigan where they had raised their family, they nixed the typical golf course community. "We were looking for a new adventure for retirement," Karen Gotting said.

They found it at University Commons in Ann Arbor Michigan, where they have been living since 2004. All residents must be age 55 and older and at least one of the couple must have earned a four-year college degree. Gotting said when she and her husband bought their luxurious 3,000 square foot condo with floor to ceiling windows that overlooks a forest for $555,000, they didn't just purchase a retirement dwelling; they bought a lifestyle.

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Residents of University Commons gather in a 17,000 square foot community space, surrounded by an arts and crafts studio, three classrooms, a fitness facility and a recital hall where University of Michigan students often play. On a recent weeknight evening, one of the residents was giving a lecture while 17 gray haired residents -- two in their nineties -- listened and engaged in discussion. The idea of "living in a community where expanding our knowledge and making learning the centerpiece of our community was very appealing," says Karen Gotting. "It hasn't disappointed us."

In their quest for a new kind of retirement living, the Gottings are not alone. They represent a path that many boomers will follow as they age. "Some people are interested in a traditional golf course type of retirement, but there's a stronger movement in other directions," says John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging and former president of the American Society on Aging, who sees many retiring to university towns with vital downtown areas. "There's no question that boomers want choice, variety, leisure and life enriching activities," says Larry Minnix, president of LeadingAge, an association that serves seniors. He predicts that in 10 years the word "retirement" will be seldom used.

Boomers want to do something different than what their parents did, says Sandra Timmermann, director of MetLife Mature Market Institute. This includes everything from co-housing, to neighborhoods where residents help each other,  to homes remodeled for a comfortable “age in place.”

In co-housing, new complexes are built to provide individual dwellings, but residents eat together. Others are sharing the same house, mirroring the arrangement characterized in the television show, "The Golden Girls." Both of these living arrangements satisfy boomers' craving for companionship, especially as many anticipate outliving their spouse, Timmermann said.

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The Village-to-Village Network is an organization that allows aging residents to remain in their home, yet gain easy access to services they need. Each network’s volunteers (many of whom are members themselves) provide everything from dog walking services to transportation and doctor's appointments.

The Village-to-Village network "is a whole movement that's thriving," says Andy Gaines, executive director of Ashby Village in Berkeley, California, who says many boomers have been involved in starting these kinds of communities. His community, which launched in 2010, now has 259 members. There are currently 100 villages in operation throughout the U.S., with another 120 in formation, he said.

Sondra Jensen, age 71, whose husband became disabled five years ago and has been in a wheelchair ever since, was one of the original members of Ashby Village. She frequently helps others in the community, assisting a woman with Parkinson's disease by typing her e-mails and business reports and other detailed tasks. "It's reassuring to know we will be able to ask for help some day if we need it."

Those who can't take advantage of the village concept are remodeling and using new technologies to remain safely in place. AARP's research finds that 90 percent of older Americans want to remain in their homes. The age of the "snow bird," where retirees head to Gulf Coast states for their final years, is quickly fading, says Amy Levner, AARP's manager of home and community. She says the number one reason people stay is to remain close to family. Houses are being remodeled to incorporate universal-living features like grab bars in bathrooms, curbless showers, and adjustable countertops.

Boomers are far more receptive to technologies that monitor and help them, unlike their parents, who often shunned wearing a Life Alert bracelet or necklace, says Shannon Ingram, president of GenAge Marketing. Many companies are springing up to service this need., for example, is an integrated television with services for seniors, allowing access for e-mail, video chats, medication reminders and health information. QMedic uses fitness tracking technology to establish a baseline behavior, then texts a loved one if a period of inactivity is detected.

For those still interested in living in a retirement community, facilities are being built to cater to boomers who demand upscale amenities. Vivante on the Coast in Newport Beach, California, slated to open in October, is the first of several Vivante communities planned for the wealthier boomer.

Designed for those ages 60 and older, Vivante’s apartments are built on 200,000 square feet on seven acres and cover the full spectrum of life, from independent living to memory care. Rents range from $4,000 a month for a studio to $11,000 for a two bedroom, which includes all meals, prepared by Ritz Carlton-trained chefs. There's also a yoga deck, a movie theater, dog park, art studio, a 2,000 square foot gym and a fun zone with activities for grandchildren. All residents get an iPad that provides internal applications to see activities and menus of the day. Vivante "helps celebrate the life residents have created and lets them live the way they're used to," says Phill Barklow, vice president of operations. He says 55 percent of the properties are already pre-leased.

Even the traditional 50 plus communities are getting a facelift to respond to the demands of aging boomers. Dell Web Communities, in existence since 1960, which merged with Pulte Homes in 2001, has over 50 facilities in 21 states. In 2002, it began responding to baby boomer needs by introducing smaller, more lifestyle-oriented active adult communities in the Northeast and other non Sunbelt states. It's now providing its residents with access to computer classes, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and opportunities for lifelong learning. Last year, it partnered with Road Scholar, which provides educational-based trips for older Americans.

Steve Lembke, Road Scholar's vice president for institutional advancement, said his company approached Dell five years ago and "they weren't ready for that then." But recently, the constituency of the residents changed and the company became more interested in lifelong learning. The partnership offers residents the chance to go together on a Road Scholar trip. So far, six communities in six different states have participated. The model is no longer about "golfing, bocce ball and sipping lemonade," says Valerie Dolenga, a Dell Webb corporate spokeswoman. "The home is secondary. They're shopping for a place to grow themselves as they age," she says.

But as much as boomers demand a high-quality lifestyle, many could find it difficult to afford this type of living. Costs of a Dell Webb condominium range from $130,000 in Ocala, Florida to $650,000 in Wanaque, New Jersey with homeowner association dues from $150 to $250 a month. At University Commons, condominium prices range from $190,000 to $550,000, with a monthly condo fee between $290 and $760, and a $150 monthly program fee.

Though many boomers are affluent, many have lost wealth during the recession, and according to the most recent Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, in 2010, those 55 to 66 had an average net worth of $179,400, with only $44,000 in liquid assets. As people continue living longer, the greater challenge will undoubtedly be finding facilities that give boomers what they want, at a price they can afford.