For today’s seniors, retirement is more active than ever. Between 2009 and 2015, the largest increase in the rental market came from Americans ages 55 and older, as baby boomers started leaving their dream homes behind in favor of active adult communities designed specifically for their needs. And these aren’t your grandparents’ retirement homes; they’re designed to cater to their occupants’ lives, complete with features such as single-story floor plans, lower kitchen counters, easy-to-use light switches and smart appliances.
But the most important feature of these homes is the freedom they promote in the people that live in them—to create a lifestyle just as vibrant and exciting as the one that came before it.
“We wanted a place where we could make our own decisions and come and go as we pleased,” says Marian Dornell, 78. When Dornell retired from her nursing career eight years ago, she and her husband decided not to wait until poor health forced them out of the home they’d occupied together for 17 years. And rather than settling for a “warehouse-like” nursing home, they chose an active adult center on a sprawling 10-acre estate in central Pennsylvania, where the facility’s commitment to wellness and community has given them a chance to thrive. Ten thousand baby boomers turn 65 every day, and, like Dornell, many of them want the next phase of their life to be active and engaging.
“People put a lot of time and money into financial planning for retirement, but they downright neglect psychological planning for retirement. People need to find a reason to get up in the morning [and] be excited,” says Dr. Sara Yogev, author of the book “A Couple’s Guide to Healthy Retirement and Aging.”
To that end, Yogev believes “it is very, very important to continue being active”—a principle that the designers of active adult residences in the Washington, D.C., area have embraced. Take Ashburn, Va.-based builder Van Metre Homes, whose standard two-story townhouse features a large public space, a dedicated study, a first-floor master bedroom, and an elevator, and is centrally located in an active community core with shopping, dining, and physical activities like trails or a tennis court.
“The challenge is to create a space that can work for a person or couple who are probably downsizing, still working, but looking for a place and location that can also fit a retirement lifestyle,” says Christopher Fox, Vice President of Architecture at Van Metre Homes. “The goal of easily transitioning from work to play in the same place and location is the mix we are looking for.”
Many such communities are woven around walkable streets, bike paths and parks, allowing residents to stay fit simply by stepping outside to see their neighbors.
“Active living is an environment where everyone can be engaged in physical activity—the best thing you can do for your health,” says Marcia Ory, a Texas A&M professor who spent two decades working in Bethesda, Md., at the National Institute on Aging. “These are communities that make it easy for people to be physically active.”
Ory says that the D.C. area offers a wide mix of active adult living options—including urban high-rises designed with shared seating areas that give residents a safe haven while still allowing them to take advantage of the city, as well as suburban or rural developments that offer a cozier, village-like feel.
“An ideal community would have places to walk, places to socialize, common areas,” she says. “It would offer opportunities for physical engagement, such as sidewalks to walk on or a swimming pool, which also lead to increased social engagement. It would also be intellectually challenging, with book clubs or painting classes.”
New communities are also being designed with integrated smart technology, creating houses that are aware of a resident’s typical behavior, allowing them to detect a problem and alert the authorities if something changes.
“If you don’t lift your toilet seat in the morning or open your fridge,” says Ory, “your house knows there might be something wrong.”
But the most important feature of any community remains the community itself. A thoughtfully designed active adult development does more than promote exercise—it fosters new friendships, new relationships, and all of the social engagement that is so important at every stage of life.
“The active adult community surrounds you with people that are in or transitioning into the same part of your life,” says Van Metre’s Fox. “This surrounds you with many people with similar experiences who can easily become lifelong friends. It also creates a smaller community that is easier for creating friendships.”
“It’s important to have what I call ‘serious leisure,’” adds Yogev. “You cannot expect to be content and happy if all you do are activities that keep you busy, but nothing that keeps you engaged.”
After eight years in her new home, mental stimulation is the aspect of living in an active adult community that has surprised and pleased Dornell the most. A budding poet, she has published her work and shared it with her friends in the community at poetry readings organized by the facility’s staff. Her new life has allowed her to discover an artistic side she never knew she had.
“I found my voice while I was here,” she says. “I’ve been really lucky.”
Learn more about active adult living at vanmetrehomes.com.