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A new kind of 55+ community is wooing residents with wellness, nature and cultural connections

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By Sherri Snelling

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

In 2008, Janice Barton was vacationing at Serenbe, a biophilic, or nature-centered, community in the Chattahoochee Hills about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. She fell in love with the village’s English-style cottages, outdoor artist studio, nature trails, local shops and cafe all within walking distance, and decided to buy her forever home there.

“In a typical suburb, you drive into your garage, shut the door and that is it,” explained Barton, who at 73 is a solo ager. “Maybe you know your neighbors on either side or across the street but you don’t have anything in common so you don’t want to invest the time and energy. At Serenbe , I feel younger because I am engaged and I’m living a more vibrant life.”

Serenbe and other new amenities-laden retirement communities illustrate how the senior living industry is going through a transformation that has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic . Pre-pandemic Americans age 65+ expressed the desire to stay living in their homes as long as possible; the social isolation imposed by the pandemic has solo agers — the 12% of the population who, according to AARP, are widowed, divorced or without adult children to care for them — rethinking the desire to age alone at home.

Related: Seniors head back to retirement communities as COVID lingers–‘I just didn’t want to be alone’

Changing designs, changing minds

Meanwhile, families have become more concerned about congregate living after pandemic-related health threats and mandatory isolation from loved ones occurred in most long-term care communities.

In addition, the interests and needs of residents over 55 are changing, requiring existing communities for older adults to resuscitate their appeal to ever-younger prospective residents (the oldest of the millennial generation turns age 50 in just eight years).

Overcoming ageist perceptions of retirement living and assisted living developments will be challenging. Many people feel these communities are destinations for physical decay, disability, devastating diseases and death instead of communities that promote thriving and better quality of life well into residents’ 80s and 90s.

Read: A retirement safe from climate change? Ask the tough questions about real estate and property insurance

According to James Balda, president and CEO of  Argentum , the leading national trade association for what the industry refers to as “senior living” communities, 7 out of 10 people will require assisted living care in their lifetime. The number of people in assisted-living accommodations today is expected to more than  double  to about two million by 2040.

However, most older adults only opt for senior living the last five years of life, making the amenities more about medical care than quality of life. Active 55+ communities and independent living cater to an older population but many boomers are looking for curated amenities and universal design homes within multigenerational neighborhoods.

Bob Kramer, co-founder and strategic adviser of National Investment Center for Senior Housing and Care (NIC), wrote in an article for Boston Hospitality Review, “Innovative housing communities focused on engagement and delivering quality lifestyle experiences will attract millions of seniors many years before they need today’s care-focused products, which they actively avoid.”

The first hurdle is that 42% of most older adult communities are more than 25 years old and need upgrades in infrastructure and design aesthetics as well as reconfiguration of dormitory-style living. After the economic realities of the pandemic on how to keep both residents and staff healthy and safe, many operators realize they must invest significant capital in creating more yet smaller buildings that also have a more indoor/outdoor open floor plan design.

Whether it is a redesign or simply building a whole new community, the senior housing industry is hoping, “If you build it, they will come.”

Wellness is now the biggest trend and No. 1 selling point for older adults and their family caregivers to consider a 55+ community. The  Global Wellness Institute 2022 report  estimates the North American wellness real-estate market at $118 billion and says “people are becoming increasingly aware of how lifestyle and external environmental factors impact their well-being and are seeking health-and-wellness enhancing solutions in their daily lives.”

This is why many communities seek to incorporate biophilic design into their marketing efforts. Advocates of biophilic-designed communities say they help promote physical and emotional health of older adults by creating environments that respond to humans’ neuroscientific need for contact with nature (biophilia means “love of life or nature”).

Read:  Forget pickleball and golf. These communities centered around farms or gardens are redefining retirement

The call of the wild in biophilic communities

One study  found patients in hospital rooms with a view of trees and greenery were discharged twice as fast and needed less pain medication than those in hospital rooms with no windows. Another  study  found a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s in adults over age 60 who lived in biophilic-designed environments.

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