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Riding High After 55

It’s an hour’s walk around Heritage at St. Charles, a development for people aged 55 and older in White Plains, Md. But it often takes resident Connie Linassi, 60, an hour and a half. That’s because neighbors stop to chat with her along the way.

Heritage at St. Charles is among a growing number of communities cropping up around the Washington region and the United States catering to a burgeoning population of baby boomers and older adults who want to live in a mainly upscale setting tailored to their age group.

Many of them are “active adult” developments where residents like Linassi — people who do not need health assistance — can lead busy, fulfilling lives.

Linassi regularly goes to the clubhouse to attend potluck dinners, enjoy game nights and hear guest speakers. She visits neighbors who may be temporarily housebound, and investigates companies that could be added to the community’s list of vendors who provide reliable, fair-priced service to seniors.

She’s also an avid cyclist, and hopes to begin biking with a neighbor to boost her mileage. But she’s equally happy sipping her morning coffee on the patio and waving as friends pass by.  “I’m living the dream,” she says.

Around the country, the number of multifamily housing starts for people 55 and older rose to 23,000 in 2013 from 8,000 in 2009, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The group is projecting that forthcoming data will show the number of 55-plus single-family housing starts rose to 27,000 in 2014 from 9,000 in 2009.

If that projection holds true, according to the NAHB, the 55 and older segment of the construction market for single-family houses is expanding by 49.6 percent a year, far outpacing the 3.7 percent growth rate for the overall single-family market.

The industry is making a big rebound following the recession, when construction halted and when many existing senior communities around the country faced bankruptcy and other financial problems.

Unlike a generation ago — when their living arrangements were confined mainly to the outdated family house that no longer met their needs, or a relocation to Florida — older adults today have a plethora of options.

“Demand for 55-plus housing has never been higher,” says Steve Bomberger, president of Benchmark Builders of Wilmington, Del., who chairs the NAHB 55+ Housing Council. “Consumers in this market are looking for a home that caters toward their specific needs,” and communities are responding to the demand that’s anticipated as baby boomers age.

For example, Regency at Dominion Valley, a Toll Brothers community, is adding seven multi-unit condo buildings to the Greenbrier section of the large 55-plus development in Haymarket, Va., over the next few years. The two- and three-bedroom condos range from the high $200,000s to mid $300,000s, plus a condo fee. “There’s huge demand,” with move-in dates extending into the first quarter of 2016, says sales manager Cindy Spampinato.

Style-wise, these new communities are hardly characterized by the drabness of senior housing of yesteryear. In some ways, they seem more geared toward millennials, pushing the envelope on design, energy efficiency and technology.

Vivante on the Coast, an assisted-living community in Costa Mesa, Calif., for instance, has numerous restaurant-style and outdoor dining venues. Amenities include a rooftop deck, wildflower park, raised vegetable gardens and reflexology footpath.

Every resident at the luxury rental development receives an iPad, with a community app installed, that can be used to order room service, schedule a hair appointment and check the community activities calendar.

Meadow Ranch, a 55-plus development in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, takes green building, energy efficiency and healthy living to a high level. At the community of semi-custom homes, rain buckets capture water from downspouts, and drip irrigation moistens yards. Residents can pick vegetables from the community garden and harvest apples from the orchard.

The “easyHouse” models at Boulder Creek Neighborhoods in Colorado incorporate dozens of “universal design” features for accessibility, safety and ease of use, from no-step entries to wide, short hallways and large, curbless showers. The floor plans are open and adaptable, with numerous flex spaces that can suit changing needs.

To accommodate a wide range of needs, three types of communities, in general, are cropping up in the Washington area:

●Active adult developments, like Heritage at St. Charles, offer designs similar to any other new home community. The biggest differences are the age restriction as well as first-floor bedrooms and other features aimed at enhancing comfort and safety.

● Independent living communities, like Fox Hill in Bethesda, add hospitality services such as a dining room and meal plan, 24-hour security and transportation; some provide access to or are located close to health-care services.

●Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), such as Greenspring in Springfield, allow residents to live independently but transition into onsite assisted living, rehab, nursing and memory care units if and when needed.

“The flavor of active adult communities is changing,” says Amy Levner, manager of housing and mobility options at AARP. People want to enjoy particular amenities and activities, and communities are being designed to “match that interest.”

Ideal for socializing…

Linassi said she discovered the appeal of Heritage at St. Charles by accident, but instantly fell in love with the place. When helping a friend find a house in 2009, she visited Heritage, one of two 55-plus active adult communities developed by Lennar in the Washington area; the other, Virginia Heritage, is in Fredericksburg. Both provide a clubhouse, fitness center and recreational facilities, along with close proximity to restaurants, shopping, entertainment and parks, as well as business and commercial centers.

The idea of a 55 and older community intrigued Linassi. She’d lived in a nearby family neighborhood for decades but, with no children of her own, realized she would not miss basketball hoops in driveways and kids running into the street. “I liked the idea of being around people my own age and older, people whose children were grown and who now were more settled and peaceful in their lives.”

She got really excited when she saw that the Heritage homes are one-story detached models. At 55, she bought a spacious three-bedroom home with a dining room, living room, family room, office, eat-in kitchen and two-car garage with a bonus room for storage.

Linassi socializes in her back yard, too. She landscaped it with a patio, pergola, waterfall and winding creek. On nice evenings, friends know that’s where to find her, and head around back to visit and enjoy a glass of wine.  The spacious dwelling is “like a party house, it’s so open,” she says.

Branching out…

Last June, Marlies Buhler, 78, moved from her large family home in Bethesda where she lived for 41 years into a two-bedroom, three-bath house four minutes away at the Fox Hill retirement community. One of her two daughters lives nearby.

Buhler said she had become lonely, and wanted to move to a place where she would have more social contact. She also opted for a community where health care was available should the need arise.

She bought a Fox Hill model that she loves, a “butterfly plan” with a central kitchen and living area and separate bedroom wings — one for her and the other providing privacy for visiting family and friends.

By remaining in the vicinity of her old neighborhood, Buhler can maintain ties with her longtime friends, doctors and stores. She says another benefit of Fox Hill living is convenience: For a monthly fee, she can eat in the Fox Hill dining area and invite guests there without having to cook. The fee also applies to services, such as haircuts, car washes and the purchase of sundries.

There’s no shortage of social interaction. Fox Hill residents, she says, are friendly, worldly and interesting.

In her first months at Fox Hill, she has been doing yoga, working out with a trainer, walking with a group, attending biweekly literature discussions, taking in lectures on the arts and world issues and enjoying the community’s extensive library.

Joining bridge and mahjong groups is on her to-do list. “You can try anything you want here,” she says. “I’m branching out. It’s really great.”

Staying close to home…

In 2012, Vernon “Jiggs” Kaliher, 81, moved from a 2,250-square-foot house in Virginia Beach to a 1,000-square-foot apartment in Greenspring, a continuing care community in Springfield. Kaliher said he opted to leave his home of 28 years to be closer to his daughter, so that she would no longer have the burden of frequent long drives to visit him.

Almost all residents of independent living communities and CCRCs choose developments that are within 15 to 30 miles of their old neighborhoods, or are close to their children and grandchildren.

Kaliher’s apartment has a bedroom with a walk-in closet; a bathroom with a large shower; a half bath with a washer-dryer; a fully equipped kitchen; and a living room that he furnished with a sleep sofa. When relatives visit, they take his bedroom and he sleeps on the sofa.

Kaliher gets his regular lab work done at the community’s nearby medical center. He sings in the Greenspring community chorus. He participates in three bridge groups and plays pickle ball, softball and horseshoes. He belongs to some clubs and walks three miles many mornings with a walking group. Greenspring clubs and activities, like those at other senior living communities, are initiated by community residents. Kaliher also volunteers weekly at Inova Alexandria Hospital.

“I saw moving here as an opportunity to stay active, be with people, and be outside. I learn so much from so many different people here, who have traveled all over the world,” he says.

A smooth transition…

Buhler used the proceeds from the sale of her Bethesda house to buy the $800,000 residence at Fox Hill. Some senior living communities sell units outright. Others have various acquisition terms.

In many existing communities, acquisition costs were lowered after the 2008 recession to be commensurate with area real estate prices. The faltering economy hit the industry particularly hard, and many senior communities filed for bankruptcy protection. Fox Hill faced foreclosure in 2012.

The problems prompted a U.S. General Accountability Office study on continuing care retirement communities in 2010.
The report said in part: “While CCRCs offer long-term residence and care in the same community, residents can still face considerable risk. For example, CCRC financial difficulties can lead to unexpected increases in residents’ monthly fees. And while CCRC bankruptcies or closures have been relatively rare, and residents have generally not been forced to leave in such cases, should a CCRC failure occur, it could cause residents to lose all or part of their entrance fee.”

Fox Hill relaunched with market-based prices in 2013, says Kristin Kutac Ward, president and chief executive of the development’s sales and management company Solutions Advisors. She says many people who had begun the purchase process before the downturn came back and settled.

Erickson Living manages three senior living communities in the area — Greenspring, Ashby Ponds and Riderwood. They assess a monthly maintenance fee and take an initial deposit comparable to a purchase price.

Residents or their designated beneficiaries receive 90 to 100 percent of the deposit back (based on state regulations and re-occupancy fee requirements) when they leave the community.

The sales proceeds from Kaliher’s house almost matched the $294,000 deposit that Greenspring assessed for his apartment.
“People can sell their house, roll the money over to cover their deposit and use their pension or Social Security income to cover the monthly fee,” says Jason Longwell, director of sales at Riderwood in Silver Spring.

Even before they arrive, residents may receive assistance from senior living communities.

Erickson Living offers a service that helps people stage their existing house to sell, and decide what to keep. The service packs, moves and unpacks everything. That includes putting away the dishes, making the bed, hanging pictures and plugging in the TV at the new residence.

Fox Hill has a delayed purchase program that lets people put money down to buy a unit before they sell their existing home, and go to settlement once that house is sold; this can help ease the stress of making the move, says marketing director Julie Sabag.
“I consider this my home now,” Buhler says.

Is an adult living community right for you?

Think through what living environment would make you happy now as well as what your needs might be in coming years.
Here are some suggestions from Amy Levner of AARP and Julie Sabag of Fox Hill:

• Location: You should have easy access on your own or via community-provided transportation to shops, medical buildings or services, restaurants, entertainment and public transportation.

• Community: It should have features that are important to you, such as dining options, fitness facilities, clubhouse features, business center, trails, gardens and other outdoor activity areas, community activities, outings, clubs and special interest groups.

• People: The staff should be friendly and helpful. You should also feel comfortable with the other residents.

• Health care: If this is a priority for you, various options for continuing care or in-home care should be provided and an emergency response system in units should be in place.

Before making a choice, spend the night as a guest to experience the community. Talk to residents. Invite family and friends to weigh in, meet the staff, assist with financial planning, and review legal documents.

“I encourage children, grandchildren, cousins and friends to play an active role,” says Sabag. “They are welcome to come in and ask questions. They will see things with a different set of eyes,” which can be helpful.

You might want to ask an attorney to review and assess the legal documents and contractual obligations.