For Most, There's No Place Like Home
Towns prepare for the graying of boomers
DASSEL, MINN.--Small-town Minnesota natives Harold and Marge Nohner tried retiring in the sun. After a lifetime of snow, Harold, 60, a retired 3M employee, and Marge, 58, a former restaurateur, bought a trailer in 1997 with plans to spend half their retired years in Mission, Texas. But after four months, they headed back to a home they built here in Dassel, a hamlet of 1,200 some 60 miles west of the Twin Cities where January temperatures average 11 degrees. "I got a little homesick," says Harold, lingering over a sausage link at the Dassel Fire Department's french toast fundraiser. Adds Marge: "All our friends and family are here."
For most retiring Americans, there's still no place like home. Last year, 89 percent of folks 55 and over said they wanted to remain in their homes--up from 84 percent in 1992. As the baby boomer tsunami shifts from Little League to Social Security, towns will morph from kidcentric havens into what sociologists call naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs). Retirees' desire to age in place "is the hidden issue people haven't yet recognized," says demographer William Frey.
While a few places have cut property taxes for their aging residents, most have done precious little to prepare for the imminent onslaught of gray-hairs. They'd better start soon. One in four retirees lives in a place where at least half of the residents are older than 60. Contrast that with 6 percent who reside in golden-year nirvanas like Leisure World. Seniors are just like other generations, says University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. Michael Hunt. They want to be with their peers, "but they also want to be part of the larger community, without the stigma" of being labeled old.
Hunt coined the term NORC in the 1980s after surveying Madison apartments where the bulk of residents topped 60. Some tenants had aged in place, while prime digs a stone's throw from shopping centers and the university's cultural hub attracted others. NORCs are everywhere, notes Hunt, but likely to proliferate in states to which boomers migrated years ago and plan to remain, notably California and Georgia.
Some hubs are starting to help seniors stay put. In 1999, Atlantic City began routing casino taxes to outfit homes with senior-friendly features like bathroom grab bars. Los Angeles now stretches stoplight times near some senior centers to give residents extra time crossing streets. In New York, nearly 30 NORC supportive-services programs bring perks like on-site nursing and money management classes to apartment complexes statewide. Retired social worker Nat Yalowitz cofounded the first in 1986 at his Manhattan co-op, after noting that nearly 70 percent of his neighbors had aged in place: "Like good cheese, you know?" Last year, Yalowitz snared a $1 million federal grant to spread the programs nationwide.
But corralling senior services is easier in densely populated areas than in the sprawling suburbs where most boomers live. In Minneapolis-St. Paul neighborhoods--with suburblike single-family homes and strip malls--grass-roots entities may offer the burbs a clue. Retired cellist Jane Anderson, 88, lives in a Minneapolis home she bought 49 years ago. In 1997, gradually losing sight, she asked a local hardware store owner for help reading her mail. He called Southeast Seniors, a neighborhood nurse program that helps seniors in the area remain at home. Now, with monthly visits from volunteers and frequent in-home nurse checkups, Anderson can live safely in her home. "It's where I belong," she says.