In 2008, Janice Barton was vacationing at Serenbe, a biophilic, or nature-centered, community in the Chattahoochee Hills about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. She fell in love with the village's English-style cottages, outdoor artist studio, nature trails, local shops and café all within walking distance, and decided to buy her forever home there.
"In a typical suburb, you drive into your garage, shut the door and that is it," explained Barton, who at 73 is a solo ager. "Maybe you know your neighbors on either side or across the street but you don't have anything in common so you don't want to invest the time and energy. At Serenbe, I feel younger because I am engaged and I'm living a more vibrant life."
Serenbe and other new amenities-laden retirement communities illustrate how the senior living industry is going through a transformation that has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic, Americans age 65 and up expressed the desire to stay living in their homes as long as possible; the social isolation imposed by the pandemic has solo agers — the 12% of the population who, according to AARP, are widowed, divorced or without adult children to care for them — rethinking the desire to age alone at home.
Changing designs, changing minds
Meanwhile, families have become more concerned about congregate living after pandemic-related health threats and mandatory isolation from loved ones occurred in most long-term care communities.
In addition, the interests and needs of residents over 55 are changing, requiring existing communities for older adults to resuscitate their appeal to ever-younger prospective residents.
Overcoming ageist perceptions of retirement living and assisted-living developments will be challenging. Many people feel these communities are destinations for physical decay, disability, devastating diseases and death instead of communities that promote thriving and better quality of life well into residents' 80s and 90s.
According to James Balda, president and CEO of Argentum, the leading national trade association for what the industry refers to as "senior living" communities, seven out of 10 people will require assisted-living care in their lifetime. The number of people in assisted-living accommodations today is expected to more than double to about 2 million by 2040.
However, most older adults only opt for senior living the last five years of life, making the amenities more about medical care than quality of life. Active 55-plus communities and independent living cater to an older population but many boomers are looking for curated amenities and universal design homes within multigenerational neighborhoods.
Bob Kramer, co-founder and strategic adviser of National Investment Center for Senior Housing and Care, wrote in an article for Boston Hospitality Review, "Innovative housing communities focused on engagement and delivering quality lifestyle experiences will attract millions of seniors many years before they need today's care-focused products, which they actively avoid."
The first hurdle is that 42% of older adult communities are more than 25 years old and need upgrades in infrastructure and design aesthetics as well as reconfiguration of dormitory-style living. After the economic realities of the pandemic on how to keep both residents and staff healthy and safe, many operators realize they must invest significant capital in creating more yet smaller buildings that also have a more indoor/outdoor, open floor-plan design.
Whether it is a redesign or simply building a whole new community, the senior housing industry is hoping, "If you build it, they will come."
Wellness is now the biggest trend and No. 1 selling point for older adults and their family caregivers to consider a 55-plus community. The Global Wellness Institute 2022 report estimates the North American wellness real estate market at $118 billion and says "people are becoming increasingly aware of how lifestyle and external environmental factors impact their well-being and are seeking health- and wellness-enhancing solutions in their daily lives."
This is why many communities seek to incorporate biophilic design into their marketing efforts. Advocates of biophilic-designed communities say they help promote physical and emotional health of older adults by creating environments that respond to humans' neuroscientific need for contact with nature (biophilia means "love of life or nature").
The call of the wild
One study found that patients in hospital rooms with a view of trees and greenery were discharged twice as fast and needed less pain medication than those in hospital rooms with no windows. Another study found a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's in adults over 60 who lived in biophilic-designed environments.
"Wellness has always been part of the model for senior living with a focus on nutrition, fitness and social health," noted Balda. "But it is boomers who are driving the need for a broader definition of wellness."
Steven Nygren, founder of Serenbe, describes his community as purposely biophilic and said it has also been called an "agrihood." This farm-style living movement includes more than 150 neighborhoods across the U.S., according to the Urban Land Institute. The appeal to escape the traffic, noise and stress of cities and live more simply within steps of community gardens and orchards is driving older adults to these nature-centered communities.
After the housing market crash in 2008, "the first communities to step out of the recession were walkable communities and those focused on environmental or biophilic design," Nygren said. "Suddenly people started showing up to see what Serenbe was all about."
Additional agrihoods designed to attract older residents into multigenerational living are in development, including Kallimos in Colorado and Texas, developed by aging pioneer Bill Thomas.
Creating communities with cultural connections
"A lot of the models in assisted living are broken, mostly because we have taken away people's purpose," said Dwayne Clark, founder and CEO of Aegis Living, which uses scent diffusers and reminiscence therapy to evoke pleasurable memories in residents and reconnect them to their past.
Clark said Aegis intends to incorporate wellness design in the more than 35 assisted-living and memory-care communities it runs in three states. The company also operates properties tailored to residents' cultural backgrounds. For example, Aegis Gardens near San Francisco is designed with feng shui principles in mind, serves authentic Asian cuisine and offers activities such as mah-jongg, calligraphy and tai chi.
"I'm a mama's boy and I didn't want to do this in the beginning," said Ed Weissberg, 58, who lives in Washington state and moved his 91-year-old mother, Isonio, into an Aegis Gardens near Seattle when she began showing signs of dementia and reverted to speaking in her native Japanese. "But moving her into this community was the smartest thing I have ever done because she is happy."
Other companies are creating communities based on lifestyle. Latitude Margaritaville 55-plus communities in Florida and South Carolina are built around the lyrics, music and laidback island culture of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
Not to be outdone, the Walt Disney Co. is planning active 55-plus neighborhoods within the larger Storyliving community, designed to appeal in a similar way as its theme parks and cruise ships. "We're expanding beyond guests to residents and replicating the joy of those vacation times into everyday life," said Michael Hundgen, portfolio creative executive of Disney's Imagineering team.
At what cost?
Affordability is a concern at all of these communities, where homes can run from $250,000 to $1 million, depending on home size, community type and local property market. The Genworth Cost of Care Survey reports the nationwide average monthly cost for a bed in an assisted-living facility is $4,500.
That exceeds the median income of people 65 or older in the U.S., according to Census Bureau data. Some multigenerational communities are trying to address this. Homes in one agrihood in a depressed Detroit neighborhood average $25,000 and offer a solution to the food insecurity that has long been a problem in the area. Building homes for the lowest-income retirees is not economic, developers say, although some see an opening in the middle of the market.
"The biggest opportunity for growth in senior living is the middle market who can afford $3,000 a month but not $4,500 a month for the higher-amenity communities," said Balda. "By 2050, 27 million seniors will need some care with a variety of needs and wants; it is our job to deliver those choices from active senior living to memory care."
This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.