Grayer Pastures

A new generation of Americans is redefining the concept of senior living

The silver tsunami washing over the nation will swell the ranks of “seniors” in America to an estimated 71 million by the time the last Baby Boomers retire in roughly 13 years, up from 41 million just five years ago. And this emerging cohort will defy traditional understandings of what it means to be a “senior.” Take, for example, the impacts on senior living.

The oldest Baby Boomers are part of a generation that is reputedly healthier than any to come before it. While its members aren’t exempt from the obesity epidemic slamming the nation, many in this generation will go through “early” old age, then enter advanced old age 15 years or so later, still defying traditional expectations for senior lifestyles.

Someone who’s 70 has substantially different needs than someone who’s 80; for the most part, the younger ones are still a way from retirement homes and managed-care settings. Their progression, though, is already changing the nature of businesses that cater to an older clientele, like Lakeview Village, the sprawling retirement complex in Lenexa.

“Some have moved here in their late 60s and early 70s, but that’s not the norm—yet,” says Jamie Frazier, Lakeview’s president and CEO. For now, the demand is being sustained by the older members of the Silent Generation and fast-fading Greatest Generation.

But when that dynamic starts to change, it will change fast, retirement-living executives say. And the sheer size of the Boomer cohort means there are sufficient numbers on the leading edge to see demand for senior living options starting to tick up. “The goal for me,” said Frazier, a mid-range Boomer at 60, “is to have these kinds of communities ready for me when I’m ready. But a lot of that depends on affordability, government reimbursements and all the other various pieces.”

At John Knox Village, which helped pioneer the retirement-community concept in the 1970s, “we’re starting to see some significant uptick in volumes,” says CEO Dan Rexroth. “I credit that not just to the demographics, but probably even more to the general economy. People are feeling good about home sales, they’re feeling good about their retirement assets, and they’re also planning ahead more. We’re doing more sales than we’ve done the past year or two years.”

 Consequently, his organization is diving into new projects, anticipating that demand will snap up that space. “Everybody,” Rexroth says, “likes that new-car smell, and it’s the same whether it’s a house or apartment.”

Driving this is the continuing extension of life expectancy. Generations ago, Rexroth noted, retirement was considered to be a brief winding-down from a lifetime of work. When Social Security was enacted in 1935, the odds of even seeing a single check from it were against you; the average life span in the U.S. was just 61.7 years.

“Now, people are thinking about their retirement as a distinct phase of life,” Rexroth said. “They’re living 20 or 30 years in retirement, and viewing it as a very different kind of thing. They’re looking for a lifestyle—they want more than just a house that accommodates them—they want the amenities that will enhance that new phase of life.”

For some, those amenities won’t necessarily entail retirement-community living. Mike Dodd, owner of LifeWise Renovations, has been riding the crest of the aging in place remodeling boom since the construction downturn in 2009 prompted him to rethink his contracting company’s traditional business model.

“In the building products industry, the large manufacturers, they’re not idiots—they’ve seen this tsunami coming for a long time, and that’s creeping in to the senior marketplace,” Dodd said. The concept of a barrier-free shower in larger spaces, for example, has been modified to include walk-in enclosures that can fit into smaller bathrooms.

But a great many smaller-scale projects can allow seniors to offset the effects of limited flexibility and reach, declining vision and strength, or lack of stamina. From shallower kitchen cabinets to electrical outlets well off the floor, larger doorways to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, or higher dishwashers and front-loading laundry appliances, entire homes can be refit, piece by piece, and often at prices that will compare favorably with retirement community costs.

That has created demand for new hardware and products for contractors. “Everybody,” Dodd says, “is trying to figure out the senior market,” Dodd said. A few years ago, his new business model was cutting edge; “now the market is flooded with them,” he says.

The changes are also prompting new looks at how the existing built environment can economically and efficiently accommodate new, affordable senior-living options. That will be key, since an estimated one in three Baby Boomers has saved not a dime for retirement.