Aging in Place A Look at Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities

 Citizens over the age of 65 comprise nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population—just under 40 million seniors. By 2030, it is estimated that 72 million  Americans will be over the age of 65, nearly doubling those numbers. Where this  volume of seniors will live and how, is a question facing not only the  individual seniors but also many boards and property managers who are seeing an  increased population of older residents. It is to be expected that this group will dramatically change the face of aging  and retirement.  

 Not a New Trend

 The estimates are not surprising as “baby boomers,” which are children born post-World War II between the years of 1946-1964, move  into retirement, and beyond. By sheer force of numbers, this group has influenced everything from Gerber baby  food to Schwinn bicycles to mini-vans. The first boomers reached retirement age  (65) in January of this year. It is to be expected that this group will  dramatically change the face of aging and retirement. According to data  released in 2010 in the U.S Census Bureau, 993,158 of New York State residents  are over the age of 65.  

 Some of these aging Americans move into nursing homes or managed care facilities  as their mobility and overall health begin to decline, but as people are living  longer and healthier lives, they’re opting to stay in their homes longer—a process sometimes referred to as ‘Aging in Place.’ A 2010 AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] found that 90 percent of  seniors want to remain in their homes.  

 It is generally agreed that aging in place, surrounded by community in a  familiar environment is far preferable to moving into a less-stimulating,  potentially more isolating nursing facility. The term ‘Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities,’ evolved from aging in place. A NORC is a demographic term used to describe a community, building, development  that was not originally built for seniors, but that now has a sizable elderly  population.  

 “The aging population will likely lead to a rapid increase in the number of NORCs  in the coming years,” says John Migliaccio, Ph.D., and director of research for the MetLife Mature  Market Institute in New York City.  

 According to the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) of New York, a philanthropic  umbrella organization serving over 100 social services agencies, there are 54  NORC programs in New York State, which receive $11 million of public funding  for its 60,000 residents.  

 “A major priority for us is helping the elderly retain their residences and  independence to age in place,” says Anita Altman, UJA’s Deputy Managing Director. “What we do is raise money. We help provide financial support. We provide  government relations. We do communal planning. We want to improve the quality  of life for elderly residents so they can age with dignity.”  

 In a NORC program, social workers, nurses, and residents work together to  address the needs of seniors in a community. Wide ranging activities from yoga  to indoor gardening to pizza and film evenings are provided.  

 Co-op City, located in the Baychester section of the Bronx is home to 55,000  residents with a senior citizen population of over 8,300, making it the largest  NORC in the nation. Many of its elderly inhabitants moved in as young workers  and remained after retiring.  

 “Here at Co-op City, we have implemented numerous senior services including the ‘Are You OK Program’ to contact older residents on a daily basis to check on their well-being,” says Helen Atkins, a board president and employed by the NORC organization at  Co-op City and Riverbay. “Our CSO (Cooperator Services Office) managers and staff are also vigilant and  help to identify and refer senior residents who may be in need of care or  special services. We are proud to be recognized as the largest NORC community  in the U.S. As our populations have aged in place, we continually make changes  to accommodate them and serve their needs.”  

 The Start of Something Bigger

 The first NORC services program in the country officially opened on November 14,  1986 at the Penn South Co-op complex in Chelsea. The 10 building, 2,800 unit complex located between Eighth and Ninth Avenues and  East 23rd and 29th streets, was built in 1962 by the International Ladies  Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and underwritten by the United Housing Federation  (UHF). Designed as a social experiment to provide affordable housing for  moderate-income workers, many of the original residents were union members, who  once walked to work in the nearby garment center and chose to stay in New York  after retirement. By the early 80s, around 70 percent of the shareholders in the complex were over  60.  

 Right around this time, Fredda Vladeck, a geriatric social worker at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village began to notice a lot of older adults coming  into the emergency room with preventable admissions. Many lived at Penn South  in nearby Chelsea. As Vladeck began to dig deeper, she discovered that many  Penn South residents were former labor organizers, most who had never married  and half of those who had married, did not have children, and the result was a  population without conventional familial supports.  

 “At that point I went to the Board of Directors at Penn South and told them what  we were seeing at the hospital and asked them what they thought would be  helpful,” says Vladeck. “The board suggested a nurse or social worker on site but I challenged them to  think bigger. I challenged them to think about what kind of community they  wanted as this community grew older. And that was the genesis of it.”  

 “Recognizing how successful that program was and that the demographics of Penn  South were not all that unique given the way housing was developed in New York  City, we set about see whether the model that was developed there could be  replicated in other communities,” says Altman. “Turns out it was easily adaptable.”  

 Robert Weisenfeld is a New York City-based expert on NORC issues. He is an  educator and a real estate expert. He recognizes the value of social support  programs for anyone and especially for seniors. “Within the confines of a community, residents can support each other socially,  emotionally, mentally and physically. In order for a NORC to function well everyone must be on board,” Weisenfeld explains. “The management company and the staff will be first to realize a senior is not  doing well mentally or physically”. When all the necessary Supportive Service Programs (SSP) are in place there is  a clear course of action outlined to obtain the proper help in all situations.  A NORC SSP is designed to reduce service fragmentation and to provide an  integrated community where seniors can age-in-place with comfort and security.  

 Grey is Great

 Gail Badger-Morgan, the assistant general manager at Riverbay Corporation, Co-op  City’s management company, sees many seniors aging successfully. She considers older  adults a positive influence for a number of reasons. “I consider our mature shareholders as the ‘keepers of the legacy of the community,’ Badger-Morgan, “It is an honor to see and interact with seniors as they are a source of a wealth  of information. They bring knowledge and a sense of comradely to intergenerational programming.  In communities where parents are working, they become a safe place and safe  caretakers for our children, values and mores that would otherwise be shared  and learned while in their company.”  

 Badger-Morgan cites security as another plus, since older adults are often home  during the day, they recognize normal activity and are great on crime watch  committees.  

 Altman echoes Badger-Morgan’s positive sentiments. “Older adults bring a lot to the table,” she explains. “They bring a lot of life experience to any community in which they live. We have  a wonderful inter-generational cultural arts program that we do every year. It  brings seniors together with younger people in the community and it’s been a hit. Everyone loves it.”  

 Atkins feels managers and boards can reach out to residents by interacting and  communicating with service providers who manager their care and health concerns  with organizations such as the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.  

 “Our community relations staff is in constant communication with JASA [Jewish  Association for Services for The Aged] which provides NORC services and AARP,  which performs senior advocacy,” says Badger-Morgan. “A member of our relations staff will coordinate with the presidents of various  organizations, building associations, and clubs that serve our mature  population, to ascertain the needs of the seniors and to obtain their  suggestions.”  

 Vladeck feels managers and boards can reach out to residents with a quick  survey. “A survey with no more than 10 questions could be enormously helpful,” says Vladeck. “The questions should be about their concerns and aspirations. I mean this  seriously because if we only ask them about what their needs are, we’re still doing what I call a deficits-based approach, which is only helping the  neediest rather than defining the kind of community more broadly.”  

 Senior-Friendly Renovations

 Renovating a living space to make it more senior-friendly will vary by building  or housing development but special attention should be paid to handrails,  ramps, increased signage and lighting or anything that presents a trip hazard.  

 “I’ve received a lot of feedback from older adults living in various kinds of  housing developments and the most common concern they have is sturdy grab-bars  in the shower stalls,” says Vladeck. “The stairs and hallways should also be well-lit and the security system or  buzzer system should work well.”  

 “Assessments should be made from the entry to the building to the laundry  facilities to the community rooms to the intercom systems,” says Badger-Morgan. “A housing company should be savvy as to what retrofits would help seniors within  their units, complying with ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act], and also  being knowledgeable about the public areas in a building. For example, a  grab-bar installation program is a must. Being familiar with the requirements  for the installation of ramps, railings and other aids is essential to avoid  confusion and the delay of installation of the retrofits.” Both Vladeck and Badger-Morgan believe that it is important to ask seniors what  their wants and needs are that would make their lives easier and safer.  

 An increasing population of older residents benefits any community in numerous  ways. Through open communication, boards and management companies can create a  safe, stimulating and interactive community that not only houses but also  engages older residents for many years to come.   

 Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The  Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this  article.  

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