How Baby Boomers Are Shaking Up the Retirement Home Biz

By: Dave Roos
Jimmy Buffett bartending SiriusXM
Jimmy Buffett bartends as Coldplay performs for SiriusXM at The Stephen Talkhouse in the Hamptons. Buffett is opening a retirement community called Latitude Margaritaville. Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for SiriusXM

As millions of Baby Boomers enter retirement, it's time to rethink the stale and depressing model of traditional retirement homes: institutional food, grumpy underpaid staff, and endless rounds of bingo.

Jimmy Buffett's on board. The aging island-rocker has added a "55 or better" retirement community to his Margaritaville business franchise (what, you haven't eaten at a Cheeseburger in Paradise?)


Retirees who buy one of the thousands of units available at the Latitude Margaritaville planned communities in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Hilton Head, South Carolina, can look forward "island-inspired living" that, according to a promotional video, seems to mostly center around happy hour.

Even if sipping watered-down drinks under a palm tree isn't everyone's idea of a perfect retirement, there are many ways that traditional retirement communities can up their game. Journalist Beth Baker recently toured the country researching her book "With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older," and was surprised to discover dozens of innovative and inspiring retirement communities that have improved on the old-school retirement home model.

Speaking to HowStuffWorks, Baker identified five key lessons that all retirement community should learn if they want to attract Baby Boomers like herself.


1. Don't Build Out in the Boonies

Baker says that Boomers want retirement communities with walkable downtown locations, like the Ohio Living Westminster-Thurber in the Short North neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Sandwiched between the arts districts of downtown Columbus and the cultural and educational resources of The Ohio State University, residents can register for free college classes and enjoy generous senior discounts at the nearby Columbus Museum of Art and the Columbus Symphony.

Most retirement communities are built by for-profit developers who are looking for cheap land to keep costs down. As a result, many retirement communities are located far from city or town centers and cut off from public transportation. What this creates, says Baker, is an isolated existence that saps residents of their independence and restricts them to activities and interactions planned by the community staff.


"My generation of Baby Boomers is going to be much more interested in walkability, being in the middle of town where you can go to restaurants, go to the theater, go to movies, instead of having all entertainment in this enclosed retirement community," Baker says.

2. Activities Aren't Enough

At the Burbank Senior Artist Colony in Los Angeles, residents can take classes from professional working artists in the visual arts, creative writing, theatre and more. But the arts activities also provide a gateway to more meaningful work in the community.

"The artist colony happened to be right next door to high school for troubled kids," says Baker. "They had done some outreach where, along with the kids, they were creating rap-based theatre productions and growing a community garden."


Baker visited other retirement communities where residents go into local schools to share life experiences and advice with kids going through difficult times, including recent immigrants and LGBTQ youth.

"Many people that run retirement communities think that if you're busy, you have a full life. So, if you have enough activities on the calendar, people will feel this is a great place to live," says Baker. Seniors want to feel valued for their life experience and what they can offer others.


3. Integrate, Don't Segregate

There's a continuing care community called Kendal at Oberlin in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio, that's laid out in such a way that residents at all care levels are encouraged to interact. ("Continuing care" means one facility has spaces for independent living, assisted living and nursing home care.) When active and healthy residents want to go to the pool, they must cross through an area with wheelchair-bound residents. There are no locked doors and residents all eat together, even those with dementia.

That's certainly not the case at most continuing care facilities, which purposefully segregate residents by care level. Some communities even have rules banning wheelchairs from the main lobby.


"In the minds of the developers, it'll turn off these 60-year-olds if they think they're going to be living around a bunch of old people," Baker says.

Even though she recognizes that some younger residents undoubtedly like the segregated facilities, Baker thinks it's a missed opportunity.

"Not only is it nice for the people who are frailer, but it makes the really independent and active people realize -- in a comforting way -- that if and when their time comes, they won't be ostracized and marginalized," says Baker.


4. It Takes a Village

Beacon Hill Village isn't a retirement community. It's a member-funded organization of 400 seniors living at home in a cluster of urban neighborhoods in Boston, Mass. For a modest annual fee, members get access to a close-knit network of neighbors who organize cultural activities, take trips together, answer each other's computer questions, fix each other's leaky faucets, offer rides to the doctor's office and more.

Founded in 2002, Beacon Hill was the first of what's now a nationwide network of such "villages." The same self-governing, volunteer-powered model would be interesting to apply to a planned retirement community. Instead of handing over activity planning and dining services to a centralized authority, community members could have a greater stake in their experience, and that includes watching after older, frailer neighbors.


5. Support the Staff

A cherished part of community life at Providence Mount St. Vincent, a retirement community in Seattle, Wash., is the Intergenerational Learning Center. The on-site daycare center is open to resident volunteers who can recharge their batteries with a boost of toddler energy. Another big perk is that the daycare center is free for kids of employees.

Retirement community staff and nursing home aides are notoriously underpaid and turnover is sky high. The result is that staffers are unable to form the kinds of caring relationships with residents that can turn a "facility" into something that actually feels like a home.


"In addition to increasing their wages, you need to increase the staff's sense of empowerment," says Baker. "You need to have a career ladder. You need to say, your job is to make these older adult's lives as pleasant, fun and positive as possible. Instead of having this really menial task. You want to create a culture that's based on relationships."