Fast forward to the 2000s in which brochures and Web sites for retirement communities tout classrooms for lifelong learning, “brain gyms” to maintain mental agility, wellness centers complete with massage and aromatherapy, well-stocked libraries and art centers where classes in photography and flower arranging have replaced ceramic squirrels and paint-by-numbers.
Today’s retirees, it seems, are not retiring from life, but to life and are seeking communities that promise to enrich the retirement experience.
A recent study conducted for Sodexo Senior Services by Varsity, found a strong desire among residents and prospects alike for a multi-dimensional wellness program that goes beyond physical well-being and addresses intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual and environmental aspects as well. The study found that “the presence or absence of a program that addresses dimensional wellness” has a significant impact on the selection of a retirement community.
Many retirement communities are rethinking and remodeling their physical plants to appeal to this new generation of retirees for whom health and wellness is a priority. The last decade saw many communities adding swimming pools and fitness centers. Now, wellness means more than merely using a treadmill. Residents want to eat healthier, too, and are turning to more natural, organic, or locally grown foods. As a result, dining environments are changing from large, formal dining rooms to smaller, more intimate bistro-type spaces and featuring chef-prepared meals using fresh ingredients, less fat and salt, and adding vegetarian entrees to the menu.
Environmentalism is emerging as another dimension of wellness. At the insistence of residents, many retirement communities have begun robust recycling programs. The use of chemicals and fertilizers on campus lawns has been curtailed. Use of native plants is encouraged. One administrator complained that common areas were always dark because residents “keep turning off the lights” to save electricity. Pennswood Village, a Quaker-sponsored community in Newtown, Pa., created an award-winning storm water treatment system that not only addressed their own storm water runoff but created natural habitat in nearby ponds and meadows and provides an inspiring setting for walkers and bird watchers.
Other retirement communities have jumped on the lifelong learning bandwagon. Some have partnered with nearby colleges or universities to bring speakers and classes to the community, while others have gone a step further allowing residents to audit courses side by side with college students in the classroom for free or discounted tuition. The Kendal Corporation, with retirement communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic, was among the first to embrace the idea of continued learning communities built in close proximity to universities.
Residents are not only seeking self expression but are finding ways to positively influence the well-being of others through active volunteerism. Some volunteer their time and talents to organized groups like Habitat for Humanity, others simply by helping wheelchair-bound nursing home residents get outdoors to enjoy a breath of fresh air.
Thomas Smith, a chaplain at Sunnyside Community in Harrisonburg, Va., where volunteerism is high, says volunteer programs enable residents to nurture their spirituality by helping others. He believes spirituality is important to a person’s overall well-being and that retirement communities can play a role in fostering it.
While a retirement community may not be in everyone’s future, it’s clear that today’s communities have come a long way from the stereotype of the “old folk’s home” to a more enriching and engaging environment. The good news is that you don’t need to travel far to find one that’s right for you.
PATTI ADAMI is director of ThirdAge, a division of LarsonAllen, senior living consultants.