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The old folks home goes upscale and ultra-competitive

The race is heating up in Massachusetts for a share of the golden-years gold mine.

Illustration by John Ueland for the Boston Globe

IN THE MARKETING VIDEOS for the Commons in Lincoln, a lot of slim, attractive older women and men who can only be described as hale do things like play tennis, garden, laugh with friends at a linen-draped table, and chat in their apartments against a backdrop of Oriental rugs and sailboat prints.

The Commons, an independent living development for seniors, hopes such images will entice you to stop by for a visit, whether you’re looking for yourself or with your parents. If you do, executive director Chris Golen, looking smart in a sport coat and polished wingtips, will walk you through the wide, warmly lit corridors, where sturdy white wainscot is capped with handrails so subtle you might have to look twice to spot them. He’ll show you the billiards room, the heated indoor swimming pool, and the performance hall with its double-height ceiling, where big bands and string quartets are brought in to entertain residents once or twice a week.


If it’s Sunday, Golen might accompany you to brunch, where impeccably dressed people — gray-haired men in jackets and women in colorful wool separates, professorial adult children, and well-behaved grandchildren — sip tea or mimosas, help themselves to bright green asparagus spears and fruit-dotted scones, or drop by the carving station for a slice of baked ham or a made-to-order omelet. He’ll introduce you to a few of the residents. “I might say, ‘Why don’t you have brunch with Mrs. Smith,’ ” Golen says of his approach, “ ‘because she went to Harvard, too.’ ”

By the time your visit is over, you’ll want to move in — regardless of how old you are. “Everyone I tour says, ‘I can’t wait,’ ” Golen says. “ ‘My house, mowing the lawn? See ya.’ ”

At least that’s the reaction Golen and his counterparts at senior living complexes around the country are hoping for as they fight for their share of the gold mine that is your golden years. “The highest concentration of wealth in the country is among the 60-plus age group,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT’s AgeLab, which researches technology and trends in aging. “It’s a highly competitive industry to be the first to figure out what the new generation of older consumers want. Everyone believes if they can crack the code, they’ll get the greatest percent of the longevity dividend and ‘share of wallet.’ ”


The wallet is a fat one. The US senior housing and care market is a $330 billion industry, and it’s growing every year. For the first time in history, the “old old” — which is the actual term gerontologists use to describe those older than 85 — represent a significant portion of the American population. And as the first baby boomers turn 70 this month, the number of “old old” is expected to nearly triple in coming decades, from 7.3 million in 2015 to more than 21 million by 2050.

“Part of the marketing efforts you see today will help baby boomers when they start moving in, so it becomes part of the life cycle,” says Beth Burnham Mace, an economist with the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry. “Strong operators are basically constantly marketing because they have to keep that front door full with a line.”


The problem for operators, though, is that even the oldest baby boomers don’t seem ready to consider moving into retirement communities. Properties like the Commons are marketed as 62-plus, but the average age of new residents is 80. Marketing materials tend to “show beautiful couples laughing around a cocktail table or putting green,” says Steve Monroe, managing editor of The SeniorCare Investor, which tracks mergers and acquisitions in the industry. “But the reality is, when you go into the dining room, it’s a much different demographic. That young-looking 72-year-old comes in and says, ‘Maybe 10 years from now.’ ”

Today’s senior living operators would very much like to change that. They are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into designing communities to be as many things as possible to as many people as possible, in the hope of transforming vacancies into waiting lists.

Illustration by John Ueland for the Boston Globe

CHOOSING A PLACE TO SPEND the last decade or three of your life, or helping a parent make the decision, is a lot like choosing a college for your kid — you tour a few campuses, take a hard look at the finances, and settle on the best fit. But there are so many options in senior living that you practically need a PhD in gerontology before you even start to look.

The first thing to know is there are five levels of housing and care options. In ascending order — or descending, depending on how you look at it — they are: active adult, independent living, assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing. Active adult is like any housing development, except for the 55-plus age restriction. Independent living may include separate cottages but has most or all apartments in one building, along with libraries, dens, and other shared amenities. Assisted living can be indistinguishable from independent living, except it includes some help with showering, medication reminders, and so forth. In memory care, the exits are kept secure and activities are structured. Skilled nursing may cover short-term rehab, but for long-term residents, it’s usually the last stop on the great bus route to the sky.


A combination of these levels are contained in one campus or building in so-called continuing care retirement communities, a model of senior living that arrived in the Northeast in the early 1990s. The idea behind CCRCs is that you can more or less stay in the same place until the end. Should you have a stroke or develop dementia, for example, your needs and preferences will already be known to the staff, and your spouse or friends will still be able to visit easily.

Unlike the move to assisted living, memory care, or skilled nursing — which is usually precipitated by a health care crisis — independent living is a lifestyle choice, so the competition among operators is really about vision. “People confuse assisted living and even independent living with the idea of a nursing home and all of its negative connotations,” says Lance Chapman, marketing director at Goddard House, an assisted living community in Brookline. “You sell by creating pictures for people of what their lifestyle would be like if they lived here.”


At the $260 million NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, the lifestyle has the potential to feel a bit like summer camp for well-off grown-ups. Inside, there is original artwork at every turn and an enormous community center, but the star attraction is the great outdoors, with 2 miles of walking trails, a canoe and kayak launch, and a 100-acre nature reserve right on the grounds.

If NewBridge is pitching to outdoorsy types, the 134-unit Waterstone at Wellesley is aiming for chic suburbanites. Of course it offers the requisite personal trainers and pool, the spa and salon, and the restaurant-style dining. But it adds perks like private wine lockers so residents can keep their collections at the on-site pub, ready for a particularly celebratory happy hour. The property is nestled among the restaurants and shops of Wellesley Hills, and it’s a short drive from the heated underground parking garage to Newton Lower Falls. (And if you’re not in the mood to drive, the concierge could always arrange a Town Car.)

The great outdoors is the star at NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, even if it’s just for lunch on the terrace.

For operators that get their mix of amenities just right, the payoff can be huge. CCRCs make up roughly 22 percent of the total number of senior housing and care properties nationwide, with nearly 1,900 developments, but represent a third of the industry’s total value — roughly $110 billion in all. The 10-year return performance for high-quality senior living ending in the third quarter of 2015 outpaced commercial real estate as a whole by more than 5 percentage points, and they’re among the hottest news in real estate investment trusts.

The promise of big returns, together with the 75 million potential customers among aging baby boomers, has spurred a building wave in the high-end senior living market in recent years, and the Boston area seems especially busy. Two years ago, Wellesley-based Benchmark, which operates the Commons and is the largest privately held senior housing developer in New England, opened its 52d community, a $30 million project in Woburn. Waltham-based Epoch Senior Living opened Waterstone in 2012 and now operates 19 properties across the region, with five more in the works. Since 2014, Connecticut-based operator Maplewood Senior Living has come to Weston, West Yarmouth, and Brewster, and is actively considering several more properties in the state. The Northbridge Cos., headquartered in Burlington, opened two properties in Massachusetts last year and is developing three more in Maine. The list goes on.

Waterstone at Wellesley offers a heated pool, a standard amenity at high-end developments. Waterstone at Wellesley

Despite the massive growth in this area, units are filling quickly: Statewide occupancy rates are at 94.8 percent, 4 percentage points above the national average. “In general,” says Stephen Maag, director of residential communities at the trade group LeadingAge, “the companies that are operating in this business love Eastern Massachusetts because it’s wealthy.”

CCRC contracts seem to come in as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins ice cream, but they boil down to rentals and buy-ins. Rentals at the stunning Wingate Residences in Needham, for example, range from $5,075 a month for a studio to $8,550 for a two-bedroom, with a community fee equal to one month’s rent. Prices include one meal a day, but things like laundry and health care services are extra. The Commons, which in April will open its higher-care tiers, has a buy-in model, with purchase prices starting at $349,000 down plus $3,700 a month for a studio and going up to $1.2 million plus $6,900 a month for a two-bedroom-plus cottage. With most buy-in contracts, as much as 90 percent of your unit’s original purchase price will be refunded to you or your estate at resale.

Residents of Waterstone apartments such as this two-bedroom can expect either a screened porch or private patio.

This new wave of developments is unapologetically aiming for the high end of the market, usually targeting not retired teachers and nurses but the professors, doctors, and financial professionals who seem as ubiquitous around here as cable-knit sweaters. “I think a lot of folks who’ve done really well in their lives and have established wealth want to maintain that same lifestyle in later years, and this allows them to do that,” says the Goddard House’s Chapman. “They grew up in the country club, worked and had lunch in the president’s club, and now they want to retire to something that feels like a version of that.”

Restaurant-style dining, with hostess seating and a full menu basically whenever you happen to be hungry, servers in bow ties, and toque-wearing chefs dropping by your table are de rigueur. Commons executive chef Jason King ran the kitchen in the Back Bay’s Abe & Louie’s for four years and offers dishes like Roquefort-crusted filet mignon and sesame grilled sablefish with mango salsa alongside a 14-bottle wine list and full spirits menu. Chef Shonna Sherman owned a restaurant and catering company before going to work for Epoch. Her Waterstone menu includes dishes like quinoa vegetable quiche and champagne-grilled chicken breast.

For developments competing at this level, luxe, modern interiors are also standard, as are fitness centers, screening rooms with movies nightly, game rooms, well-stocked libraries, full lecture schedules, trips to museums, and permission to keep a small pet or two. Fox Hill Village in Westwood lists among its amenities three dining rooms, community gardens, a croquet court, and dinner dances. Waterstone offers tai chi and yoga, a wooded path along the Charles, and a manicured green on which a putting contest is held three or four times a year.

Who wouldn’t want to envision all this in their future?

WHEN GAIL HELFER AND HER SISTER were looking for a new home for their 90-year-old mother after her stroke a few years ago, they toured five or six places and did a lot of online research before settling on the Village at Willow Crossings in Mansfield. “There’s an element of sales pitch involved,” Helfer says. “ ‘Would you like to have lunch with us? Try the food, it’s really great!’ ”

Tours at most communities end with some kind of swag — at one place, it can be an elegant takeout container filled with scones, at another perhaps a bottle of branded wine or a branded insulated lunch bag stuffed with a branded umbrella, branded pen, and branded bottled water. “I got a basket with a mug and cookies from another place,” Helfer says. “I don’t know whether that was supposed to make me feel better.”

Perhaps not better. But it was definitely supposed to make her feel welcome, comfortable, at home. Because while her mother was the target consumer, Helfer was in the cross hairs. The adult children — particularly daughters — of prospective residents are involved in the decision to move 73 percent of the time, according to the trade group Argentum. But more important, Helfer is a baby boomer, and persuading her and her peers that CCRCs are where they’ll want to be in a few years is key to the continued health and growth of the industry.

“If you can make a good impression on the children,” says economist Beth Burnham Mace, “you have a ready-made marketing effort.” But boomers, she adds, “don’t really even want to deal with the idea that they’re getting old.”

The dining room at the Commons, as at many deluxe developments, is modeled after a restaurant.

Since senior communities are built around the idea of getting old, there’s really only one way for them to handle this: Pretend they’re not. They do that by front-loading their marketing materials with energetic sixty- and seventysomethings. “Very few people move in at 62,” says marketing director Lance Chapman. But emphasizing that number, he says, can “create a sense that younger, more active people are living there.”

As retirement has evolved into an “active lifestyle,” so has the lexicon of senior living. Nursing homes have been moving toward the term “skilled nursing” for years; dementia wards are now “memory care neighborhoods,” and activities directors are “life enrichment team leaders.” Wellesley’s Waterstone has independent and assisted living wings, but “we try not to utilize those words in our community,” says Thom Limonciello, director of sales. “It’s your home. We don’t think your home is associated with those types of words.” Instead, the wings are named Linden and Emerson, after the busiest streets in town.

“We know that boomers are very different than current residents,” says a slick video produced by LeadingAge and the marketing firm GlynnDevins, of Overland Park, Kansas. “They don’t like being called seniors, or the word ‘care.’ ” In November, the two groups announced that CCRCs would henceforth be called “life plan communities.” But, of course, words are just window dressing; the trick is hitting on the right mix of fun things to do. “Two years after retirement,” says MIT’s Joseph Coughlin, “how many cruise ships can you go on?”

The bingo and ceramics classes of the 1980s are giving way to hiking and yoga, and for boomers, gluten-free veganism is replacing blue-plate specials. Attending lectures and performances — or at least hanging out at the neighborhood Starbucks with your smartphone and laptop — have taken over for talking back to Alex Trebek on TV five nights a week.

With those cultural shifts in mind, high-end properties like the Commons are leading the way into the future of CCRCs. But whether they’ve found the right formula remains to be seen. “What you’re watching in the marketing is a living experiment of trying to create a vision of how we’ll live in our older age,” says Coughlin, a boomer himself. “There have never been this many people with [such] high expectations to live so long. We were busy inventing adolescence, young adulthood, and the American dream. No one has had the opportunity yet to invent life tomorrow as an older adult.”

At the Commons in Lincoln, purchase prices run as much as $1.2 million. The Commons in Lincoln

Keren Brown Wilson, one of the originators of the idea of assisted living back in 1981, predicts that boomers will embrace the concept of senior communities if operators can figure out how to make them less confining. “My husband and I are still working, though we’re past retirement age,” she says. “We want an office and secretarial support, and we like to travel. I don’t want to pay a maintenance fee if I live someplace else for six months.”

Coughlin thinks the future of senior housing is in creating communities of like-minded people rather than simply lumping everyone of a certain age together and trying to manufacture commonalities, “like freshman year all over again,” he says, “but perhaps not as fun.” This is already beginning to happen in places like the Nikkei Senior Gardens in Arleta, California, which celebrates Japanese American culture with origami classes and chopsticks on the dining tables, and Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa, California, which is marketed for LGBT retirees. Lifelong learning is also a focus. At Lasell Village, a retirement community and long-term care facility on the Lasell College campus in Newton, residents are required to complete 450 hours of educational or fitness activities every year.

Illustration by John Ueland for the Boston Globe

John Fuller, a managing editor at Pearson Education who was born in 1964, the last year of the baby boom, moved his 87-year-old mother into Peabody’s Brooksby Village following his father’s death in 2013. Before he started visiting the place, he says, he thought it would be “kind of grim,” but he was pleasantly surprised by the happy seniors and the well-kept campus that “feels a little like a college.” After enduring the tedious and time-consuming task of cleaning out his parents’ house, he and his wife, Beth Burleigh Fuller, who live in Reading and have two grown children, are considering downsizing to a condo closer to his job in the Back Bay.

But seeing how fulfilling his mother’s new life is at Brooksby has at least opened his mind to other options, though perhaps not in the immediate future. “I can almost envision myself there,” he says. “Much later in my life.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to