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Why Are So Many Retirement Communities Age-Restricted When the Data Argues Against It?

When New York Times writer Karrie Jacobs would visit her mother-in-law at her retirement community, she couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the place in spite of the swanky apartments and lavish amenities like the heated pool. “Everyone there was, in a word, old. And all the residents appeared to be living in exile, far removed from whatever their lives had once been,” she said. The image of a retirement complex, especially one that tries to sugarcoat its seclusion from the rest of society by looking more like a resort than a neighborhood, has become its own trope. No matter the array of luxuries that a traditional age-restricted retirement community can offer, the data is screaming against the whole idea, and Baby Boomers (who are aging into elderhood) are beginning to recognize that.

As much as COVID-19 decimated nursing homes (where combined deaths of residents and staff make up 31 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S.), it also gave senior citizens second thoughts about moving into a retirement community. COVID-19 was “hammering long-term care facilities, home care agencies, and families,” said Howard Gleckman, Senior Contributor at Forbes. Extreme staff shortages, resulting from the horrific death toll and the post-traumatic stress that the surviving staff experienced, persist. A recent survey from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) revealed the catastrophic news that only 1 percent of assisted living providers are fully staffed right now.

When loneliness kills

But the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed another crisis that had already been brewing long before. Back in 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cited loneliness as a “public health crisis.” Outside of the staggering body count that the virus left in its wake, the ensuing lockdowns exacerbated that problem. “When we’re separated from each other, it’s painful,” Murthy later told Vox. “That’s one of the reasons why physical separation, isolation, and solitary confinement have been methods of punishment in societies for so many years. That pain can be intense when you’re living in a state of deep separation from other people—whether that’s physical separation or you feel emotionally disconnected from them.” 

If that wasn’t bad enough, the CDC concluded that social isolation increases a person’s risk of premature death, on par with premature death risks associated with smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. What’s worse, people who experience prolonged social isolation are 50 percent more likely to develop dementia.

But health risks associated with isolation aren’t limited to the elderly. Isolation is harmful, no matter the age of the person. Socially isolated children, for instance, struggle with persistent detrimental health problems decades after experiencing prolonged seclusion. A longitudinal study from the American Medical Association “showed that chronic social isolation across multiple developmental periods had a cumulative, dose-response relationship to poor adult health.”

It also turns out that isolating oneself generationally leads to detrimental outcomes. Living in age silos, like age-restricted retirement communities, prevents interactions with other generations. Mixed-age communities, however, have their advantages for everyone living in them, but they especially are beneficial for the elderly. Health benefits from social contact with younger people include lessening dementia symptoms and regulating blood pressure, just to name a few. Derenda Schubert, Executive Director at Bridge Meadows, a nationally-renowned non-profit that develops communities that connect seniors and vulnerable youth, gave a TedTalk about the overwhelming benefits of intergenerational housing. “You may not think you need safety nets of support, but I am here to challenge you that you do,” she explained, “and I’m also here to challenge your safety net needs to be made up of people who are more than the people who are your same age.” 

But many retirement communities dig in their heels

You would think that the damning health implications of age-restricted senior housing would cause some developers to change their tune. And at first glance, you might be right. The Villages, Florida’s “friendliest” retirement community and one of the biggest names in age-restricted housing, is surprisingly in the process of amending its famously staunch rules to include residents under the age of 55. While this may seem like an easy fix, The Villages is a community that is so large (it’s actually bigger than Manhattan) that it’s a census-designated place with its own zip code, so several local government entities had to approve the change.

It turns out that the goal of including younger tenants isn’t a tactic to mitigate generational loneliness, it’s to provide housing for staff, and they will only be allowed to live in one particular neighborhood. That may not sound that bad until you read that the allowance of these residents is specifically to “reduce the number of vehicular trips into the neighborhood.” Furthermore, these younger “residents” will be allowed to live in only 1 of the 17 community development districts.

It’s one bleak analysis after another when it comes to age-restricted senior housing, whether or not it’s an extravagant retirement complex or a beige and bereft nursing home. Living in total seclusion or generational isolation poses significant health risks, and that’s prompting Baby Boomers to either age in place or revisit an option that they, ironically, “killed.”

What’s old is new again

“More and more front-edge Baby Boomers want a different retirement experience,” said Paul Riepma, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Pacific Retirement Services. “They’re looking for a fully engaged, multicultural, and multigenerational urban, university-inspired neighborhood.” A number of social and economic factors have led to this shift in attitude, like the loneliness epidemic and the rapid rise of housing prices. Seniors who are no longer working, and young people burdened with crippling student loan debt who can’t afford a home, can actually live together and maintain a higher standard of living than they otherwise couldn’t acquire on their own. If their families are living far away, senior residents of these communities can enjoy being around younger residents and their kids. For seniors whose families live nearby, many have opted to just go live with them.

When the pandemic struck, many baby boomers flocked to go live with their kids, rather than living alone. Since then, many have reportedly chosen to stay. “Multigenerational households have increased sharply amid the pandemic as many older adults moved in with their children and grandchildren to avoid isolation,” writes Carol Hymowitz of the Wall Street Journal. But whether or not Baby Boomers chose to live with their own families or move into an intergenerational community, older residents with strong ties to residents of other ages report lower levels of depression, greater physical health, and higher levels of life satisfaction. That seems to be exactly what Baby Boomers want.

Often we hear that tragedy puts things into perspective, and that’s certainly true with the shift in attitudes towards senior living. The phenomenon of people shacking back up with their families in order to brave the pandemic incited a return of multigenerational living. Multigenerational living was the norm for American households until the end of World War II, when families began flocking to the suburbs as a result of the…baby boom. So, Baby Boomers killed the multigenerational house. But now it seems like as they age, they are realizing the importance of multigenerational connections, something you are not likely to get in an age-restricted senior housing development.

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