Active Adult Communities Emerge as Independent Living Alternative

As the age—and acuity levels—of those entering independent living, assisted living, or nursing homes keeps rising, the demand for an alternative for “younger” seniors is growing, says a market researcher.

The demographic of those who move into different types of facilities has shifted, with the average age for an independent living resident now in the mid-80s, and assisted living in the late 80s to early 90s.

Younger seniors, anywhere from their mid-50s to mid-80s who want to maintain their lifestyles in an aging-friendly environment are increasingly choosing to either put off entering senior housing, or to go instead to “active adult” communities, says Margaret Wylde, president and CEO of ProMatura, a market research company based in Oxford, Miss. and London, UK.

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“Active adult” communities aren’t anything new, but they’ve been in a decline for the past three to five years because of poor economic conditions, Wylde says, as most people relied on the sale of their current homes to move into a new community.

“The recent housing downturn made a significant impact on how 55+ households finance their new home purchases,” said the 2011 National Association of Home Builders Housing Trends Update for the 55+ Market. “Those making a down payment had to rely more frequently on savings and cash on hand rather than a sale of a previous home. Only 55% of the new age-qualified active adult home buyers who made a down payment reported that it came from the sale of a previous home, significantly down from 92% in 2007 and 100% reported in the 2005 AHS.”

With the economy slowly starting to recover, activity in the 55+ market is starting to pick up, but it’s still only happening in pockets, not on a national basis, says Sharon Dworkin Bell, senior vice president of the NAHB’s 50+ Housing Council.

“It’s a lifestyle choice, it’s not out of necessity,” she says.

However, according to Wylde, that’s exactly what people are looking for, as opposed to independent living’s care-centered origins.

While it’s not “dead” as a product, independent living is probably dead as it was originally conceived—a “we take care of you” message, Wylde says.

“For most people, that’s not the primary message that they want. What they want is what a great place this is to live; ‘Bring your lifestyle here,'” she told SHN.

Instead of “independent” living communities that are secluded, follow rigid schedules, and promote group activity, there needs to be a transition toward communities that are billed as “65+”—not “senior”— with a menu of services, in locations where residents can still have access to the outside world and can continue their former lifestyle and maintain autonomy, says the market researcher.

In 2009, age-qualified active adult housing accounted for 3% of the 39.5 million 55+ households in the U.S., and according to the NAHB’s long-term forecast, the share of 55+ households is expected to grow to nearly 45% by 2020.

“As the number of Baby Boomer households appropriate for active adult housing increases over the next decade, the number of residents in these communities is likely to rise, even if their share among 55+ households remain stable,” the NAHB Housing Trends Update said.

Going forward into 2012, many companies will have an increased awareness of marketing and sales, says Wylde, and some communities will start transitioning toward a more natural, less programmed product offering, although it’s a long-term process.

“We are seeing active adult communities rattling the cage quite a bit,” she says. “A lot depends on the economy, but we’re seeing more of that product emerge.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace