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Real Retirement

June 29, 2022, 12:48 p.m. EDT

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

By Harriet Edleson

For some retirees, resilience comes with this new phase of life. They carry with them years of experience, professional accomplishments and just living life.

And for some, living near others like themselves gives them a sense of community, comfort, and security. For these people, even the pandemic hasn’t stopped them from wanting to live near others while maintaining their privacy.

As the second year of the pandemic began, they forged ahead with their lives, plans they had, or a new plan they made during the months that stretched into years of isolation for some. Sometimes, it was a combination of circumstances that led them to move to some type of retirement or “senior” community.

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“I just didn’t want to be alone,” says Carol, who is in her mid-80s and preferred to use only her first name. After her husband died in May 2021, she began making specific plans to move to a nearby retirement community in Bethesda, Md. “I decided I wanted to move.” Yet, she and her husband had discussed what they’d do. “We had decided together when one of us was alone they would sell the house.”

She considered downsizing to a condominium building but thought: “Who am I going to talk to? Who am I going to have dinner with?”

A retired teacher and school administrator, Carol consulted with her three grown children, and considered a few places in the area, including Fox Hill Residences, a retirement community, where she ultimately moved in October 2021. “It’s an apartment,” she says. “It’s like being in a condo building except it has all the amenities.” Two of her children live nearby, along with grandchildren. “You can be busy all day,” she says. In addition to an indoor pool and gym, concerts, lectures, trips and an advanced walking club, Carol likes the on-site library and the fact that there are other people around. “You can always find someone to chat with.”

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Like others who are drawn to the variety of communities available to retirees and others who continue working, Carol enjoys being around people. “I am a social being,” she says. “I didn’t really want to be isolated. But I can be if I want to” at Fox Hill Residences.

She did not move in during the “height of the pandemic,” she says. Yet, since her arrival in October, she has never seen a staff member without a mask.

Also, “in common areas, residents wear a mask,” she says. Of moving in last fall while the pandemic continued, she says, “I didn’t really worry about it. By the time I moved in October, we thought things were easing up.”

Indeed, the pandemic affected senior housing, and various kinds of housing felt the impact. “It’s sort of like investing, you’ve got to weigh the risks.”

Communities that include assisted living and memory care as well as independent living in some cases such as Belmont Village Senior Living, based in Houston, with 33 villages in operation in Texas, California, and South Florida, are thriving again. “What we’ve seen in 2022 is a tremendous surge in demand,” says Patricia Will, its founder and CEO. In 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, “we closed our front doors,” and did not take any new residents beginning April 1, 2020 and for several months thereafter “until we could get a grip on how to do this well on the inside,” she says. “We did that on our own.”

Because communities with assisted living and memory care that provide “care services” are licensed by each state, state regulators as well as local public health departments began to catch up with the situation and started to prohibit new residents and visitors “to protect those inside,” Will says. There was no precedent for the COVID-19 pandemic, she says.

Says Margaret Wylde, founder of the Mississippi-based ProMatura, a market research company for residential communities, “there was a dip in occupancy but we’re back to where we were prior to the pandemic. Occupancies are back. There was no lasting detriment to the industry. The better communities got on it immediately.”

Because there are so many different types of communities ranging from active adult communities (55-plus) and independent living to some combination or a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), known as a “life plan,” community in the industry, there are no precise figures on occupancy that covers all types.

Overall, “a lot of CCRCs are back to normal,” says Tripp Higgins, president of myLifeSite, an online resource that focuses on educating consumers about “life plan” communities. He describes the situation since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020: “During the heart of COVID people were not able to interact in the same way,” he says. “We were not able to bring people onto campus during the heart of COVID.” Marketing the “life plan” communities had to be done virtually, which was not as effective. “It was about protecting the community first and foremost. Everyone had to pivot. There wasn’t as much demand.”

For some, fear was a factor. “People were fearful,” Higgins says. “Uncertainty makes people not want to make a decision.”

Yet, some people did move forward such as to a retirement community with independent living. For example, according to Julie Sabag, director of sales and marketing at Fox Hill Residences, sales for 2022 so far include 18 settlements with three scheduled compared with 30 in 2021, 11 in 2020, and 21 in 2019. The community has 240 condominiums of different sizes.

What’s driving the interest? “They’re moving there for a purpose,” Sabag says. “It’s an opportunity for friendship. “They are a little bit fearful (at first). It’s like re-entering the world again.” The majority of people who are moving in are (seeking) “that social opportunity.” 

At active adult communities, typically designated as 55-plus housing, single-family homes are often the only type of housing available. 

Jason King, general manager at Trilogy at Lake Frederick, in northern Virginia, those seeking to flee densely-populated areas in and around cities, bought one-level, single-family detached homes. “In 2020, half of the homes were purchased as move-in ready homes,” King says. Demand was similarly high in 2021, “a record year,” though 2022 has not been “as hot as it was in 2021.”

He attributes that, in part, to low inventory. Five hundred homes have been completed in the community with 480 more to be built. Before COVID, it would take about six months from sale to move in, but with supply chain issues, it now takes 10 months from the sale of a home until move in, King says.

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