Forever young

Retirement communities fine-tune their pitch for aging baby boomers

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes
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Like other members of the baby-boom generation, Charlotte Rynerson always insisted on living life on her own terms, working, traveling, volunteering and enjoying everything to the fullest. The 66-year-old doesn’t expect that outlook to change now that she’s sold her four-bedroom home and moved into an apartment at Greenspring, a retirement community in Springfield.

She didn’t come here to slow down, Rynerson says. She’s merely swapped everyday worries — like the cost and hassle of homeownership, grocery shopping and cooking and wondering who will take care of her as she grows older — for a care-free lifestyle.

“Here, they offer every possible type of service and every kind of social, intellectual and physical activity any one could ever want or need,” Rynerson says. “I love that they have so much to do here, and there’s so much support, but I can also take off and do whatever I want, whenever I want.”

Rynerson loves being able to choose from numerous on-site restaurants and already has signed up for several Greenspring-sponsored trips, including one up the coast of New England. She also plans to do some international travel on her own over the next year.

That Rynerson finds her new home in tune with her lifestyle preferences is no accident. Retirement communities for some time have been preparing for the influx of baby boomers, a group of 77 million Americans, now ages 50 to 68, which so famously was associated with the youth movement.

Approximately 10,000 boomers turn 65 every day, according to the Pew Research Center. Although their demand for retirement housing isn’t expected to hit a critical mass until 2023, when many boomers will be more than 75 years old, retirement communities across Virginia already are adjusting every aspect of their offerings — from food to financing — in anticipation of their arrival.

“Throughout their lives, baby boomers have redefined expectations and shaped the culture, and there’s no reason to believe that that’s going to change in their retirement years,” says Eric Whitson, director of sales at Greenspring. “So yes, we are definitely evolving and changing the way we market to better reach and appeal to them.”
The way forward
Baby boomers, as a whole, are more active, health-conscious and outgoing than previous generations, and they don’t view retirement as a chance to slow down. By contrast, “they see it as their opportunity to really get up and go and enjoy life while they’re still in good health,” says Deidra Jane Massie, sales and marketing director of The Independence, a 55-plus community in Charlottesville that is home to several baby boomers.

Some Independence residents are “snowbirds” who spend their winters in Florida, while others continue to work regular jobs, including one full-time real estate broker. “They have so much freedom living here,” Massie says. “If they want to leave for a week or for several months, they let us know, and they don’t have to worry about pipes freezing or arranging to have someone cut their lawn or pick up their mail. They just pack and go.”

Some boomers don’t even want to be tied down to a single retirement community. Heritage Commons in Williamsburg is one of a new breed of communities offering rent-only apartments to the 55-plus crowd. Rents range from $1,800 to $3,600 a month, but the price includes daily breakfast and dinner, housekeeping, transportation and all sorts of scheduled activities.

“Our residents like this model because they get rid of the burdens of homeownership, they get all the amenities and advantages of a retirement community, but they don’t have to come up with that big buy-in that ties up all their money,” explains Ann Bowe, executive director of Heritage Commons. “They sign a lease for a year, but they can break it with 30 days notice.”

Some boomers also like to be in control, which is why Sean Huyett, CEO and president of Westminster Canterbury Lynchburg (WCL), expects them to embrace the continuing-care arrangement. That allows residents to make an easy, on-site transition from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing if their health deteriorates. Several retirement communities provide this type of offering, including Greenspring, and there are different financial models to pay for it. All, however, require some level of upfront deposit or buy-in.

“These are smart and savvy people,” Huyett explains. “They want to be active and enjoy as much of life as possible, but they are planners, and they don’t want to one day have their children or other people making decisions for them as they age over time and their health begins to decline.”

Huyett expects that this inherent independent streak will mean that a sizeable number of boomers will insist on aging at home. For this reason, WCL recently opened a subsidiary called Senior Independence, which provides home health-care services and other amenities. “They’ll essentially want retirement services in their own home, and we’re now in a position to provide those,” he explains.

Many choices
Retirement communities are also tweaking, updating, upgrading and diversifying their existing products. “Baby boomers won’t be attracted to a one-size-fits-all anything,” Huyett says. “They want lots and lots of choices.”

WCL, for example, has upped its offerings to include four dining venues, four residency agreement arrangements and 28 floor plans, and the organization will completely refurbish an apartment or cottage to a new resident’s tastes. “They get to pick everything, including the bathroom tile and fixtures, the kitchen countertops, the paint color, the appliances, the flooring, the crown molding and the light fixtures,” says Joe Payne, senior vice president of WCL. “If they want hardwood floors, granite counters and stainless steel appliances, we install it for them.”

Retirement communities also are bringing other amenities in line with the boomer lifestyle. Greenspring has made major investments in its fitness and aquatic center and clubhouse, added new walking trails and outdoor spaces, modernized its apartments and now offers a growing variety of food selections, including vegetarian and gluten-free entrées and wine lists, evening entertainment and state-of-the-art technology and Internet access. The Independence has a bark park for pet lovers and a community garden. WCL recently added a saltwater pool, a masseuse salon, a pub and its WCL university for any residents who want to continue their education.

Reaching out
The biggest challenge that executives and marketing staff face is changing the pervasive, long-held belief that retirement communities are airtight, staid institutions for old folks to hang around before heading off to glory. “That unfortunately is a perception that continues, despite all the changes that have taken place in the industry over the last several decades,” says Whitson.

To change that perception, most retirement communities are turning to 21st-century marketing strategies, in addition to traditional advertisements and direct mail. Heritage Commons, for example, has a Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Greenspring has upgraded its website to provide a more interactive experience and relies on multiple social media outlets. The marketing staff recently posted a YouTube video of residents doing the “Monster Mash,” a dance inspired by a 1960s rock song. The video received tens of thousands of views and was shown on the “Today” Show.”

All of the communities are relaying the message that today’s retirement community is definitely not your grandfather’s nursing home. “When people come here, they are always amazed at how different it is from what they thought they were going to see. It looks and feels more like a resort than the old quiet retirement community,” says Whitson. “The key is to get them to come here and see for themselves, and when baby boomers do that, we think they’ll definitely love what they see.”

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