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What Are Retirement Communities Like?

Once people get near retirement age, many think about moving to a place that not only fits their current needs but their future ones, too. Some move to be near the kids and grandkids. Others no longer need a big house and choose to downsize. Many move to a more pleasant climate where they can enjoy outdoor activities all year long. People get less mobile as they age and those with an eye toward the future look for places that have elevators and resident-only buses that take them to stores, medical facilities, restaurants, entertainment, and cultural activities. 

The oldest retirement community in the U.S. is Ryderwood, Washington

TIME tells the story of how the founder of the Long-Bell Lumber Company built a community with 400 sturdy frame houses, three stores, a school, church, modern water system, sewage disposal plant, and community heating plant. It was originally established as a place where company lumberjacks could live with their families all year around.

When the great timber forests had been cut down, the lumberjacks moved on, leaving behind the entire town

A real estate man named Harry Kem bought the place with the idea of turning it into a model city for older folks with modest retirement incomes. To qualify as buyers of two- and three-bedroom houses, applicants had to be retired with pensions of no more than $250 and no less than $135 a month. Kem said Ryderwood was for “spry, imaginative folks who don’t feel they are about to die.”

Most successful retirement communities are built around active lifestyles 

Early developers figured the best way to draw people 55 and older from northern cities was to give them not just a place to live, but a place with lots of things to do. Most retirement communities have huge clubhouses with dozens of meeting rooms that host clubs, card games, hobbies, free classes in photography, painting, sculpture, ceramics, stained glass, and all kinds of arts and crafts. Gyms have all the latest workout machines, and health clubs offer free aerobics, Yoga, Pilates, dance classes, and personal training while theaters that seat 1,000 or more people host theater, concerts, and films.

The majority of 55+ community residences are condominiums

When most people visualize condominiums, they think of high-rise apartment towers near the ocean. But in most 55+ active lifestyle communities, condominiums are low-rises of two, three, or four stories. There are also 55+ communities for RVs, mobile homes, manufactured housing, apartments, townhouses, zero-lot-line, and single-family homes.

Four good reasons to live in a master-planned 55+ retirement community built specifically for active adults

Security is important. Gated communities are those where the only people who can enter are residents and invited guests. The safest gated communities have guards at the entrance gates around the clock and 24-hour security patrols. 

So is peace and quiet. With no resident children or young adults, retirement communities are quieter than most neighborhoods. 

Social connections. Moving to a community of five or ten thousand designed for people your age means you have many peers to interact with. Residents meet other people through cultural activities, such as clubs and classes.

Property maintenance. Streets, pools, walking and cycling paths, and all of the landscaping chores are all taken care of so you don’t have to.

Let’s take a closer look at three large active lifestyle communities

Irwin Levy built four Century Villages in South Florida

Ranging from 5,500 to 8,500 units each, the West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach, and Pembroke Pines Century Villages are gated and guarded communities for people 55 and older. Most of the owners live in their condominiums all year, but there are quite a few part-time residents who like to live up north during the summer and spend their winters at the beach and playing golf, tennis, and pickleball. Because they migrate to and fro each year from the northern latitudes, they’re called snowbirds.

Del Webb was one of Arizona’s biggest defense contractors

During World War Two, his construction company built military bases, aircraft plants, and internment camps for the government. After the war, Webb went into hotel and casino development, including Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel, paid for in cash. And then he decided to build a retirement community.

On January 1, 1960, Del Webb’s Sun City Arizona opened

Over the next few days 100,000 visitors toured the model homes, the golf course, clubhouse, and the on-site shopping center. The granddaddy of 55+ communities, Sun City Arizona is now 63 years old and still operating as an age-restricted community of more than 40,000 residents.

Webb knew he had a good thing in active adult communities, so he expanded into Florida, Texas, and California, before going beyond the Sun Belt to cater to older adults who wanted to live close to relatives in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston.

Just north of Orlando is the largest active adult community in the United States

A Michigan businessman sold tracts of land by mail order in the 1960s until a 1968 federal law banned selling real estate by mail order. Harold Schwartz still owned a lot of land he needed to do something with, so he built a trailer park in the middle of cow country where the land was cheap. It wasn’t much of a success until a new head man took over and upgraded the development in every way. The first phase drew more than 8,000 residents. Since then, tens of thousands of acres have been added and The Villages continues to grow. 

There are 125,000 people living in 60,000 homes on 20,000 acres in The Villages

It is a self-sustaining town of retirement communities just north of Orlando, with retail stores, groceries, banks, restaurants, medical centers, post offices, and more. The 70,000 to 80,000 golf carts are the main mode of transportation everywhere inside The Villages. There are more than 100 miles of golf cart trails and golf-cart-only tunnels and bridges over highways and the Florida Turnpike.

The Villages is made up of 59 Neighborhood Centers, 29 larger Village Centers, and 12 even larger Regional Centers and 100 recreation facilities

There are nearly 3,000 social clubs for residents. Nightly activities are held in The Villages’ three town squares and more than 2.5 million rounds are played each year on their 56 golf courses. There are nearly 10 million square feet of commercial business space in the form of 500,000-square-foot town centers, malls, shopping centers, nine banks, and 14 grocery stores. One community even has its own microbrewery that pumps craft beer to its town-square restaurants through pipes in tunnels beneath the streets.

What does the future hold for retirement communities?

There are 70 million members of the Boomer generation. Research into their housing plans and preferences shows nearly half would consider living in an age-restricted community in a state with a pleasant climate so they can enjoy outdoor activities all year long.


There are four basic types of 55+ communities and we’ve been looking at only the first.

  • Active Adult Communities are peer-based and offer many activities and amenities. Some 55+ communities are designed for more intergenerational interactions. Arizona State University (and 100 other schools) have communities attached to the school so residents can take classes, attend lectures and sporting events, and be around young people in social settings.
  • Independent Living Communities provide housekeeping, meals, and handyman services for residents who otherwise take care of themselves.
  • Assisted Living Communities provide residents with personalized care that includes, bathing, getting dressed, meal preparation, and the like.
  • Continuing Care Communities provide levels of care that increase as residents age. Residents can start out living independently, then move to assisted living as their needs change, and receive skilled nursing care while living within the same community.


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