Why living in a 55-plus community may be better for your health
Tom Kelleher, who lives in Southport, a 55-plus community in Mashpee, hits the golf course when the weather’s nice, lectures in a history club, and plays guitar in multiple groups.
“If you’re bored living at Southport, it’s your own fault,” said Kelleher, 68. “On Tuesday nights we have a cribbage league, there are pool leagues, there’s a garden club . . . there’s a golf course, tennis courts, two pools, every kind of club you can ever imagine.”
A jam-packed social calendar is the central focus of many modern-day 55-plus communities trying to appeal to active baby boomers. “I build communities that have a lifestyle,” said Southport’s developer, Ron Bonvie. “Our biggest attribute is a way of life . . . Many people have said to me it’s like being on a cruise ship 365 days a year.”
But the popularity of such amenity-rich communities isn’t just about nonstop fun. An active social schedule can provide real psychological and physical benefits.
“Social contact is vital to people’s welfare throughout their lives and especially when they’re older and perhaps more prone to being socially isolated,” said Sharona Hoffman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law and author of “Aging With a Plan: How a Little Thought Today Can Vastly Improve Your Tomorrow.”
“There are a lot of studies showing a clear correlation between social interaction and longevity, mental health, and physical health,” Hoffman said. “By contrast, people who are lonely do much worse. They have more heart problems, higher blood pressure, more insomnia, and so on.”
Such research has informed the way these communities are planned in ways big and small. It’s why, Bonvie said, Southport residents have to go to the main clubhouse to get their mail. “People say, ‘I have to come here to get my mail?’ And I say: ‘Yeah, you know why? Because maybe in your old life you didn’t leave your house, you worked your whole life. Now you’re going to come and get your mail and you’re going to meet your next-door neighbor,’ ” he said.
For some buyers, however, the social aspects of a 55-plus community are an afterthought. Judith and Robbie Hurley ran an oceanfront hotel in Hampton Beach, N.H., for decades and simply were looking to downsize to a maintenance-free condo when they retired. They bought a two-bedroom unit at The Village at Sterling Hill, a 55-plus community in Exeter, N.H.
“We just wanted to get someplace brand-new and much smaller,” Judy Hurley said. “And we didn’t want to be at the beach . . . We’d been in business there 41 years, and my husband didn’t want to look at the ocean anymore,” she said with a laugh.
Hurley said they’re not typical residents, but many of her neighbors are, sharing similar motives for moving: either they’d had enough of a large house and/or they wanted to be near children and grandchildren.
If living exclusively among others in that age group isn’t your cup of tea, you’re not alone: A quarter of the population won’t even consider it, Bonvie estimated based on his research.
Regardless, Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University, said such an environment is what you make of it. “If you have the mind-set that everything is getting worse as you age and nothing’s as good as it was before, then anything that reminds you that you’re a senior is going to be negative,” Langer said. “But now there’s the belief that 80 is the new 60, and so if you get people together who are feeling vital, I think that retirement communities can be great places.”
That’s not to say you need a community like this to enjoy the benefits associated with them. Many retirees take a do-it-yourself approach: downsizing to an accessible, low-maintenance home (or updating the one they have) and keeping socially active through volunteering or other activities.
Nearly 15 years ago, a group of friends founded Beacon Hill Village, a nonprofit membership organization of Bostonians over 50 who, in exchange for annual dues, benefit from a wide variety of social, educational, and intellectual programs and activities, access to transportation, and referrals to vetted services, from home repair to home health care. The dues are $675 for an individual membership ($975 per household), and there are discounts for those on limited incomes. Their “village model” has been replicated around the world.
“One could argue that the diversity in our neighborhood really enriches older adults’ lives,” said Laura Connors, Beacon Hill Village executive director. “And it goes both ways, because the community benefits from having its older residents stay.”
There are even naturally occurring retirement communities, often found in New York City co-ops, said Joan Hyde, a senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Gerontology Institute. “These are communities where people in the same building have grown old at the same time and intentionally brought in home care services,” Hyde said. “So you have the best of all worlds: You get to stay in your own home, you get the community aspect, and you get the services.”
Hoffman and Hyde caution that “aging in place,” as it’s often called, can go off-script as age takes its toll.
“It can be fine if you can still get out and interact with people, if you have a strong circle of friends or, better yet, family that will come visit you and check that you’re safe,” Hoffman said. “But a lot of older people get into a situation where they can’t move around, they can’t get out of the house, and they become very isolated and lonely.”
Likewise, Hyde said, “Most people living in their own homes have a perfectly nice social life until they don’t, until there are too many obstacles.”
Hoffman recommends that anyone who is at risk of becoming socially isolated consider moving into some kind of community setting as they age. “Many elderly people have elderly friends, and if their friends develop health problems, they will have fewer opportunities to socialize,” she said. “You may think that you’ll all run around and visit each other, but sometimes that doesn’t happen because this one broke her hip and this one has some early dementia, and you’re completely on your own.”
Fifty-five-plus communities are essentially just age-restricted condominium developments, but continuing care retirement communities, or CCRCs, go a step further, offering a range of long-term options that, in addition to independent town homes or apartments, can include on-site assisted-living facilities, memory care units for residents who develop dementia, and nursing homes.
CCRCs primarily arose from charitable homes for the elderly, often widows of modest means able to live out their remaining years in exchange for all their worldly possessions, Hyde said. “Now people don’t give all their worldly goods, but the cost can be very high, like a million dollars. What you’re basically buying is the home as well as long-term care insurance.”
The continuity they provide can also be comforting. “If you need more intensive care or need assisted living or nursing care, you can stay on the same campus and people that you know can still visit you, and you still have access to some of the lectures and programs,” Hoffman said.
“Joining a 55-plus community resembles other home rental or purchase transactions, but a CCRC contract can be very complex, with a minefield of fine print. CCRCs are also generally more expensive than other options because of entry fees and high monthly fees,” Hoffman said. “You have to read the contracts very carefully. You should take them to a lawyer. There are all sorts of questions you need to think about . . . Can they force you into assisted living if you don’t want to go there? To what extent can they raise fees? Can you get out if you hate it, and how much money do you lose?”
In 55-plus communities, meanwhile, you can expect plenty of homeowners association rules and a good-sized fee to cover the amenities. (At Southport, where a two-bedroom unit goes for $400,000 to $600,000-plus, $485 a month covers exterior maintenance and most activities, including golf.) And should you want to sell your unit, the buyer pool is somewhat limited by the age restriction.
Kelleher and his wife owned a condo in a 55-plus community in Central Massachusetts before buying at Southport, which was bigger and had more activities. “We had a hard time trying to sell it, because it’s a specialized market,” Kelleher said. “It took us two and a half years to move here.”
Still, they’re happy they did. During a February snowstorm, their walkway and driveway were shoveled and sanded. Plus, Kelleher said, the Cape Cod location means their children love to visit.