Retirement Community Life: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities1
Omoto, Allen M., Aldrich, Christina D., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics
The U.S. Bureau of the Census (1994) estimates that approximately 5% of individuals 65 years and older move within a given year. For many retirees, the move is to an age-specific community, such as a retirement community. Although residents of retirement communities currently make up a relatively small portion of retired persons (Streib, 2002, estimates 5%; Grafova, McGonagle, & Stafford, this volume, report 7% of their Third Age respondents living in "elder housing"), they offer a unique opportunity to study individuals aging together. Moreover, retirement communities are one of the few institutions that cater exclusively to persons in the Third and Fourth Ages of life. Therefore, it is important to understand the role retirement communities play as institutions of the Third Age. Prior research that has examined the lives of retirement community residents has primarily focused on the Fourth Age person, especially those in nursing homes (e.g., Langer & Rodin, 1976; Rodin & Langer, 1979). Today, fewer people are moving to facilities that only offer complete care, but rather, more retirees are moving to facilities that offer greater independence along with care (American Association for Retired Persons [AARP], 2002). Retirees' motives for moving and their experiences in retirement communities may be very different from those of Fourth Age nursing home residents.
A RESEARCH PROJECT ON RETIREMENT COMMUNITIES
In this chapter, we describe a group of active, healthy retirees who live in continuing care retirement communities (CCRC) (Branch, 1987). Specifically, we offer a limited picture of their lives and some of the issues and concerns that they face in moving to and living in a CCRC. We focus on the process of transitioning to a retirement community, including the motivations and decisions such a move entails. We also examine life in a CCRC, including some of the common concerns and experiences faced by residents and the ways in which the retirement community impacts their lives. Although we recognize that considerable variability exists among communities and individuals within communities, our goals are to identify some of the challenges and opportunities that individuals in the Third Age face in moving to and living in retirement communities.
To address these issues, we draw from data from a large two-study project on retirement community residents (Omoto, 2004). The first study involved intensive face-to-face interviews with CCRC residents. Participants were asked about their life histories and, owing to the purposes of the larger project, especially about their experiences with volunteering and service work. The second study was a questionnaire survey completed by CCRC residents. For both studies, participants were retirees from three different CCRCs in Los Angeles County, CA. Each community offers three levels of continuing care: independent living, assisted living, and complete care. The typical resident enters the community with a low need for assistance and lives in an independent house or cottage on the main campus. Residents in the second level of care receive assistance with daily chores and/or low-level nursing care, whereas the third level of care offers full assistance.
To recruit participants, we made presentations at the retirement communities and distributed flyers and posters around the campuses. All residents were eligible to participate, and each was compensated for taking part. In Study 1, a total of 67 residents were interviewed; 112 residents participated in Study 2. We also included a 6-month follow up questionnaire in Study 2 and were successful in obtaining follow up measures from 90.2% (n = 101) of our initial sample.
Not surprisingly, the sample characteristics were very similar across our studies. Based on data from Study 2, participants were primarily female (69.4%), White (94.2%), and ranged in age from 62-94 years (M = 79.86, SD = 6.37). Roughly half of the sample fell within the age range generally considered to be in the Third Age (47.2% were between 65-79 years). Overall, the sample was well educated; 95.6% had attended at least some college and 82.6% held at least a Bachelors degree. In terms of marital status, 47.5% were married, 38.8% widowed, 10.2% single (never married), and 3.6% divorced or separated. The average length of residence at the CCRC was 8.52 years (SD = 6.51), with a range of 6 months to 31 years, and 37.2% of participants had lived in their retirement community for less than five years. Participants were primarily middle- to upper-middle-class; on a five-point scale with $25,000 increments, over half (66.0%) reported annual incomes between $25,000-$75,000. The entrance fees and annual costs of the CCRCs varied from less than $5,000 to over $65,000. Recent research suggests that individuals currently in the Third Age are wealthier than earlier generations (see Grafova et al., this volume; Sorensen, this volume); therefore, relocation to a CCRC may be within the financial means of a growing number of retirees.
Study 1 participants, nearly all of whom (89.6%) were living in independent housing, took part in in-depth semi-structured interviews. As part of this interview, participants were asked to give brief life histories and to create a timeline of important events from their lives, including describing the personal significance of each event. This is the material we focus on in this chapter.
All interviews were tape recorded, transcribed verbatim, and then checked for accuracy by the interviewer. Analysis of the transcripts involved identifying passages in which participants referred to retirement and noting recurrent themes and instances of each theme. After generating the themes and codes, the transcripts were reread but with particular attention to identifying instances of the emergent themes. Consequently, the issues we identify are not based on or in response to specific questions, nor are they derived from an a priori coding scheme. In fact, not all participants mentioned events related to retirement or retirement community living; the themes and issues noted below are based on the responses of 54 participants (80.6% of sample).
We supplement the interview information with quantitative data and analyses from Study 2. Although the initial and follow-up questionnaires in this study contained numerous measures not directly related to the purposes of this chapter, the questionnaire was constructed after Study 1, so that we were able to include questions to more systematically investigate some of the interview themes. In particular, we included items that asked participants about their reasons for choosing to move to their CCRC, their experiences there, and their perceptions of retirement-community life. We report selected analyses of these quantitative data, including using them to support and further illuminate some of the emergent themes identified from the interviews.
THE TRANSITION TO A RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
The decision to move into a retirement community raised several issues for participants and was spontaneously mentioned as a significant event in the lives of many. Prior to moving, many retirees go through a long process of planning and preparing for the transition. After deciding to move, they must decide when and where to move, as well as make plans for the physical move itself.
Motivations for Moving to a Retirement Community
Based on the comments of interview participants, we identified two main concerns that seemed to motivate the move to a CCRC: health and social life. What these concerns have in common is that they both focus on assuring a comfortable future, albeit along different dimensions. First and foremost, participants worried about what would happen to them should they need assistance in the future, either for their own health or for their spouse. Despite reporting good current health, many participants anticipated needing assistance in the future and seemed motivated to create a support system that would help should their functioning decline. When considering how best to meet this growing concern, most participants felt they had two options: move in with a family member or move to a retirement community. For those participants who reported having the option of living with family, many felt this living arrangement might compromise their own independence. Moreover, many felt strongly about not being a burden on family members, especially for those who had previously cared for older relatives and had heightened awareness of the potential breadth of support that might be required (see also Winter, Torges, Stewart, Henderson-King, D., & Henderson-King, E., this volume). Although having cared for an aging relative was not generally described in negative terms, participants acknowledged that they did not want to put their own children or relatives through the same experience. In some ways, then, their decision to move to a retirement community could be construed as an act of love. As one woman explained:
My parents had gone into a community like this, a retirement community, they said they did not want to be dependent on their children. We felt the same way. . . . And so we moved here, and are very happy here. . . . The kids don't have to worry about us, and, we had [husband's] dad living with us for a number of years and we, we didn't want to really, it was, we had no regrets ... we just said, we're not going to make our kids take care of us.
In short, some individuals viewed moving to a CCRC as a way of meeting anticipated needs while still maintaining their independence and not burdening family.
The concern about possible future assistance needs was particularly strong for retirees without immediate family. The realization that they did not have family to fall back on prompted them to look for other avenues of care. And, as a result, many seemed to feel that they had fewer choices regarding how they would spend their later years. As described by one 72-year-old woman:
Being unmarried, 1 had no one to take care of me, should 1 get very ill during retirement and need assisted living. I had no place actually to go except to, you know, nieces and nephews, and that's not a part of my life plan. I did not want that-other people to take care of me.
Our finding that future health status appeared to be an important motivation in many residents' decisions to move should not be surprising; other research has found that issues of death and dying influenced fully 40% of residents in their decisions to move to a CCRC (Hays, Galanos, Palmer, McQuoid, & Flint, 2001). Furthermore, not wanting to depend on loved ones prompted many to seek care options such as a CCRC that they felt would allow them to maintain some level of independence. Moving to a CCRC seems to have been a way to strike a balance between maintaining independence while addressing emerging concerns about possible dependency, failing health, and needs for assistance.
A related concern, mentioned by fewer respondents, focused on their ability to care for an ailing spouse. These participants were not confident of their abilities to care for their spouse, and moving to a retirement community allowed them to continue to live together rather than to place the spouse in a complete-care facility. Most participants with spouses whose health was deteriorating were still in charge of their spouses' primary needs; however, they expressed comfort in knowing that help was available if they needed it. For some, the retirement community setting also seemed to relieve them of the feeling that they alone had to constantly monitor their spouse, as illustrated by the comments of one 73-year-old man:
[My wife] began to, uh well, she couldn't do the taxes for one thing. Here's this very bright, bright woman, and she became more forgetful, and I began to panic, [and I] wanted to get her into a sheltered environment in case anything happened to me.
For couples facing the declining health of one spouse, a CCRC offers the benefit of the couple staying together in the same living quarters, with one of them receiving additional or more extensive care from professional staff.
Another motivation for moving that emerged from the interviews had to do with increasing social support and social interaction. In particular, several participants worried that they were becoming socially isolated as they aged and saw moving to a CCRC as a possible antidote. In fact, several retirees reported experiencing a loss of connection to their home community as their long-time friends moved away, and they anticipated this trend toward isolation continuing. In an effort to fight the process of social disengagement, which some have claimed is common in the later years of life (Carstensen, 1995; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999; Cumming & Henry, 1961), several retirees chose to move to a CCRC. One woman described how, as she and her husband aged, they had fewer older couples with whom to socialize. For her, it was important to move to a retirement community where they could interact with other older couples:
When we moved down here . . . I had prayed about the fact that we really needed another couple to, or at least couple friendships, you know, that we weren't getting. We had a lot of single friendships but not very many couples. And I thought it was really important particularly, for [my husband], that we have a situation like that.
As described by some participants, then, finding a socially supportive community was what led them to move to a CCRC and was at least as important as finding assistance with future health care needs.
Taken together, our participants opted to move to help meet needs or concerns that they anticipated would grow throughout their retirement years. Specifically, they expected future health limitations and problems, either for themselves or their spouse, or diminishing opportunities for social engagement. Residents actively sought out ways of handling these worries, or what might be considered anticipatory or proactive methods of coping (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997). For this group of retirees, moving to a CCRC was a way of positively and proactively addressing their concerns.
Timing of the Move to a Retirement Community
After deciding to move to a CCRC, retirees must decide when to move, where to move, and how to downsize, all of which seemed to present more than a few concerns and problems. Some participants had decided to move to a CCRC before they retired, so they needed to decide how soon after retirement they would actually move. For others, the decision to move was made after they retired, and they tended to move to their CCRC soon after making this decision. Regardless of the precise timing of their decisions, the vast majority (94.0%) of our participants moved to their CCRC during their Third Age years (<79 years), and relatively early in this life phase at that (M = 70.76 years, SD = 5.64). A common explanation for the timing of moves revolved around desiring active years of retirement and to take advantage of activities at their CCRC. As explained by one 79-year-old woman, she and her husband decided to move at the age of 77 because, "I wanted it while we're both alive and reasonably healthy so we could enjoy life together. Everybody should enjoy retirement together if they can." For another participant, her mother who had also lived in a retirement community, suggested that she and her husband move while they were still relatively young:
My mother's advice was . . . don't wait too long . . . until you are too old to enjoy life here at [retirement community]. It is a really great place to live. So we took her advice . . . we both have enjoyed all of the activities here and got into it immediately.
These individuals clearly had a vision of active retirement, and they saw their CCRCs as a positive place that would facilitate active and independent living. In short, they appear to be suggesting that life in a retirement community is suitable for the young-old rather than the old-old, and perhaps that the activities and options offered in a CCRC would not be as enjoyable in the later stages of life.
Although the decision to move while still relatively healthy and active was expressed by many, some participants who had decided to move prior to actually retiring also described not wanting to move immediately after retirement. For approximately 5 years postretirement, many participants described going through a period of adjustment. They reported feeling that they needed time to tie up loose ends at work or fulfill travel plans before settling into a CCRC. In fact, the transition out of work was especially difficult for some, and they found themselves finding ways to maintain informal connections to their previous vocation. One retired professor conveyed her mixed feelings about retiring, saying:
I wasn't ready to retire, so that took some renegotiation [with her husband who had retired several years earlier] . . . I have continued to teach one course a year . . . and it's in many ways been nice to make the transition gradually.
For others, the period immediately following retirement was used to fulfill previous travel plans or to enjoy doing things they felt they had not had time to do previously. As one 72-year-old woman who postponed moving to her CCRC said:
I really wasn't ready to come right after I retired. I wanted that space, and it was wonderful. 1 could just do that, went on trips, and did everything I loved to do, and at my own pace, and that was good, cause it helped me then to make the transition. And I could work a lot of things out in my head. And then, after 2 years of retirement, then I came to [retirement community].
In sum, then, the immediate postretirement years were viewed by participants as likely to be active and enjoyable and as presenting opportunities to pursue interests that they had heretofore not had the opportunity or time to do. For some, this meant intentionally planning to move to a CCRC. For others, however, this meant delaying a move to a CCRC; it gave them time to adjust to being retired before actually making the move.
Selecting a Retirement Community
The process of selecting a specific retirement community varied between participants, with many reporting having conducted extensive research before making their final decision (even though the search was geographically limited for most). Reasons for choosing a specific retirement community were difficult to discern from the interviews, so in Study 2, we asked participants to list the five most important reasons for selecting their current retirement community from which we identified several common themes.
Prominent among the reasons noted for choosing their CCRC was influence from family or friends (see Longino, Perzynski, & Stoller, 2002). For some, a parent had previously resided at the same retirement community. Others (35.6%) reported choosing their CCRC because a friend or family member was currently residing there.
Family members also directly influenced several participants, including encouraging them to move to a specific retirement community. In one such case, a 66-year-old woman told a story in which her mother [with whom she lived] suggested that she move to a specific CCRC:
Well, my mom had already talked about when she passed away that I would move here to [retirement community]. And what was really funny was . . . we took a ride around here and they were just beginning to build this . . . And my mom said, "see they are starting to build your retirement home for you already." And I told her, "Shoot, they will be building new ones by the time you go." And then I ended up living here! 1 watched it being built.
A sizable percentage of participants (25.7%) also reported proximity of their retirement community to family and friends as one of the most important reasons for choosing it. In particular, many retirees described a desire to be close to their children and grandchildren.
In addition to the influence of family and friends, retirees chose specific CCRCs because of the general characteristics of the communities themselves. One important factor, listed by 30.7% of participants, related to financial considerations. Specifically, participants reported choosing their CCRC because it was within their financial means, they could make monthly payments, they did not have to "buy-in," or the community offered lifetime financial security. As described by a 70-year-old woman:
Some people live beyond [their financial savings], and their money runs out before that. [The retirement community] does not kick anybody out . . . once you're in, you're in . . . that's one of the reasons I came . . . once you're in you get a continuing care contract. You're here for life.
Other commonly cited reasons for choosing their CCRC were: provision of lifetime health care (27.7%), the living accommodations met the individual's needs (18.8%) and were attractive (17.8%), the community had a religious foundation (24.8%), the residents and staff were friendly (20.8%), there was a strong "sense of community" (11.9%), and the community was located near a previous residence (11.9%).
Moving to a Retirement Community
Although the decision to move to a retirement community was frequently mentioned as an important event in participants' lives, the move itself was rarely mentioned. The few participants who mentioned the move itself, all of whom had lived in their homes for the majority of their adult lives, focused on the process of reducing their material possessions and selling their homes. They described difficulty in leaving a home that was filled with many memories and downsizing their belongings. Despite the fact that some participants looked forward to having a smaller house to care for, they also described the difficulty and trauma associated with choosing which possessions to keep and which ones to discard. For one 79-year-old woman, the move and downsizing decisions were so difficult that she could not bring herself to return to her former house:
When we sold our house, it was very traumatic. . . . We'd been in our house for fifty years, and to sell it and leave it was just a little bit more than I could handle at the time. And I never have been back. I won't go back and look at it . . . the moving itself was a nightmare. Like I say, it was very hard for me to sell the house simply because of the memories . . . and then having to get rid of so much stuff. . . . It's so difficult to do.
Although no participants reported enjoying the task of moving, at the other end of the spectrum, some participants, like this 76-year-old woman, viewed the move as an opportunity to start over again:
I suppose moving to [the retirement community] would be a big change in our lives. Cutting down on home space and things that you do . . . but it's been fun too. It was fun to start with a new home again and refurbish and make it the way you wanted it this time . . . it's been fun doing that.
Thus, it appears that moving to a retirement community produced a variety of reactions, with only a few participants reporting extremely emotional and traumatic experiences. In our questionnaire study, we asked respondents to rate how difficult different aspects of the move had been for them. A relatively small number (21.2%) found it difficult to leave their home or community, whereas deciding what possessions to bring was a difficult part of the process for a greater number of people (28.2%). Overall, 43.4% reporting that the process of the move itself was not difficult, with an additional 28.4% expressing some mixed feelings about it. In short, and with the exception of a small minority of participants who appeared to be profoundly affected, moving to the retirement community and its attendant decisions about what to do with possessions did not seem excessively difficult for most of the individuals who followed through on their decisions to move to a CCRC.
LIVING IN A RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
So far, we have described some of the issues faced by retirees in moving to a CCRC, and some of the challenges and opportunities such a move presented. To further add to the emerging picture, we explore what residents said about settling into and living in their CCRCs.
Settling Into the Community
Unlike the transition to the CCRC, the process of settling into community life had a less predictable course and was characterized by contradictory feelings and experiences. Nonetheless, when we asked retirees to report how difficult it was to adjust to the routine of living in a retirement community in Study 2, only 8.1% felt it was difficult. The perceived ease with which they experienced their adjustment might also explain why very few people mentioned anything about the settling in process during the Study 1 interviews. In one of the few instances in which adjustment was mentioned, in fact, an 82-year-old man recalled how easy the transition was for his wife, "Somebody asked [wife] how long it took her to feel like a [community member] after she moved in, she said, 'about 5 minutes.'" By and large, then, settling into the CCRC seems to have been fairly easy for most retirees.
Moreover, many retirees described the move as marking entry into a qualitatively different stage of life, stating they felt they were "beginning a new life" or "starting a new life phase." As one resident recalled:
We moved into this house . . . just like we were beginning a new life. We were coming out of our shell and [my wife] was active in a couple of book clubs and I became chair of the [retirement community committee] and we really felt like we were, we turned a corner and we were starting a new phase ofourlife.
Many participants also used the move to intentionally restructure their lives and prioritize activities that were personally rewarding (see also Helson & Cate, this volume). As described by one male resident:
It gave me a chance to spend more time with my wife and do things that I never had time to do before . . . like gardening and taking care of the lawn and so forth . . . I started watercolor painting because I'd always wanted to do it, but I'd never had time.
Despite the general ease and positivity most participants experienced in settling in, a few reported considerable difficulty adjusting. In one extreme case, a 72-year-old woman reported having visited several CCRCs through her previous profession, experiences that left her never wanting to live in one. She described an uncharacteristically hard time settling into her CCRC, "I never did want to come to a retirement community. . . . And, when I came here, I did not want to come. . . . It was a difficult transition." Furthermore, the questionnaire data permitted us to examine the relationship between retirees' desire to move and their reported adjustment to the CCRC. This relationship was significant, r= -.36, p < .001; residents who did not want to move had the hardest time adjusting to life in their new retirement communities. Thus, it seems that being ready to move may have gone a long way in smoothing retirees' transitions to living in a CCRC.
Becoming a Part of the Community
Part of the adjustment process of settling into an "active adult" community is becoming a part of or involved in the community. Many new residents of CCRCs move into their own house or cottage, so that socializing among residents is not guaranteed. To facilitate socialization, many communities strongly encourage participation in community events, including attending communal meals. Each of the CCRCs in our research has a main dining hall where residents are encouraged to eat at least one meal a day together. And, at one of the communities, there are seating assignments that change periodically, the effect of which is that residents get to know people they would not otherwise socialize with. Overall, many residents reported looking forward to these daily opportunities to socialize. As one woman described:
We change tables every meal, here at [the retirement community]. You see, it helps us to share with everybody in the community. In other words we, we can't just go and sit with somebody who's our buddy, you know, each time . . . I have no idea who is going to be put at a table when [a friend] and I go to the dining room. . . . And as I hear about other retirement places where they don't have assigned seating, where people go and there might be a vacant place there and somebody comes by and says, "Well, no we are saving that for so-and-so." You know, that would hurt all the way down. So, we, we don't let that happen here.
In fact, residents from communities without assigned seating were more likely to report the formation of cliques and a weaker or lost sense of community. One resident described how a shift in policy from rotating assigned to unassigned seating at her CCRC changed the overall sense of community:
They changed the way we are seated in the dining room. . . . And I feel we lost a lot of sense of community . . . different people you don't get to know them. . . . We were amazingly free of cliquishness before, and now we have the little groups back there and they eat there all the time.
In addition to communal meals (with and without assigned seating), residents of CCRCs get to know others through community activities such as volunteer work, as illustrated by the comments of one retiree:
One of my [volunteer activities] here is once a month I interview one of the new residents . . . and write up a biography for our paper. . . . Otherwise, except for these interviews, I would never get to know them and they don't, a lot of people don't, get to know who they are. And I'm enjoying doing that.
All of the CCRCs in our research also encouraged residents to participate in community activities. We found that residents who actively participated in community activities reported positive effects on their overall well-being, including being happier and healthier. For example, two different residents equated staying active with staying alive: "if you don't keep busy, you die," and " [activities] keep me busy, and I think that's kept me healthy." It is interesting to note that the positive link between well-being and active retirement made by our participants is also supported by research showing greater involvement in CCRCs is positively associated with both physical and psychological well-being (Jenkins, Pienta, & Horgas, 2002; see also Moen & Altobelli, this volume, for analysis of broader participation).
In complementary fashion, several participants noted that the unhappiest residents tended to be those people who were not involved in the community. As succinctly stated by one participant, "once in a while we have an unhappy person. That's usually because they don't enter in and become part of the community." And, as one woman observed about her own feelings of loneliness:
Well, I don't feel close to anybody here, and I feel very alone in the world . . . I ought to use some of these community volunteer possibilities, I guess, to meet more people and so forth, but I haven't done that.
Furthermore, many residents who socialize and actively participate in their CRCC believe that they are living a more active lifestyle than they would have if they had chosen to remain at their previous residence "aging in place." As stated by a 76-year-old woman:
We're very grateful to be a part of this loving community. [We] much prefer it to having spent our remaining years just by ourselves in an independent home off campus. We're so glad to be a part of a place like [the retirement community], where we have our noon meal together, and it gets us up and out of the house, and it gets us over to mingle with everybody and see what's happened to them since yesterday. . . .
Another man described the importance of being in an active community:
It's important, it gives me a feeling of belonging to something, being a part of something. I'm not isolated and just an old man sitting in a comer looking at TV, but I'm actually participating in some activities, and I get a feeling to some extent of being useful and maybe doing something that people enjoy or feel they get something out of.
Even while acknowledging the benefits of community involvement, some found it difficult to limit their activities, especially at first. As described by a 68-year-old man who had moved into his CCRC at age 65:
You can get your whole life wrapped up in [the retirement community], and we had to make that decision within the first year realizing that we weren't going to do that. We were going to limit our commitments here and we kind of talked about it . . . a half hour commitment here is here and half hour commitment is in the wider community.
The issue of how to negotiate involvements in the CCRC was a little more complicated for residents who were also active in the broader community when they moved. These individuals had to balance their prior involvements with making choices among all the new opportunities available in their CCRC. In short, then, a challenge that confronted many new residents involved selfregulation-finding a balance between involvement within the CCRC and not feeling overwhelmed.
Similarly, for several participants, retirement entailed a conscious decision to slow down, and some felt that they needed to place limits on their involvement during retirement. One 72-year-old resident described learning to limit her involvement:
Sometimes I have to say, "Look, being under pressure, you've been under pressure all your life. Say no, and it's okay to say no." And this year . . . is about the first year I've felt comfortable in saying. . . . I just can't do that right now. And I appreciate being asked. . . . But it's taken me 5 years, I think, to adjust to being here.
Thus, as they settled into their CCRC, many residents found that there were numerous activities to participate in as well as opportunities to socialize with others and to stay active and healthy. Even seemingly small practices, like assigned seating at meals, appear to profoundly affect the ease with which new residents settle in and feel part of the community. In a few instances, retirees reported having to consciously limit their involvements in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Adjusting to the level of activity in the CCRC was a challenge for some residents, therefore, but most appreciated having many opportunities and claimed positive benefits, especially as compared to if they had chosen to "age in place" or live with family members. We also point out that the increased activity and socialization opportunities residents encountered in their CCRCs are two factors that we found had figured prominently in retirees' decisions to move in the first place and, not incidentally, have been positively linked to well-being in CCRC residents (Jenkins et al., 2002).
Growing Older in a Retirement Community
Whereas adjustment to the routines and dynamics of the CCRC was relatively quick and easy for retirees, coping with changes associated with aging appear to have been more difficult. Having intentionally chosen "active adult" retirement communities, many retirees expected that all residents would be relatively able-bodied. That is, their preconceived notion was of a community of fit and active retirees, so they were surprised at the variability in health and age-related problems they observed among fellow residents and the impact these observations had on them. As one 75-year-old woman described:
When you see people going around in walkers and things, instead of thinking, "it's sad and that's what I'm going to end up doing," you look at them and think, "boy, she really gets around well and she, she's always . . . looks nice," and they smile and they're upbeat, and it's encouraging, really not discouraging. . . .
Another younger resident, age 66, described the impact on her, saying:
It made me appreciate my health and everything I have. I'm fortunate as to my retirement income and my health. So when you see other people, and you see that they can hardly move or they are half blind, but they are so happy, I hope that I can be like that.
Moreover, many residents did not anticipate the frequency with which they experienced death in the retirement community, and these experiences were difficult to get used to. As described by a 75-year-old man:
One of the most vivid shocks that [my wife] and I have both had now that we've moved into [the retirement community] is living with death and dying. It's never been our experience before, but around here it's something that happens regularly, and it forces you to begin thinking about your own condition and what it may be 10 years from now.
In fact, living in a retirement community, surrounded by people in later stages of life, caused many residents to think about their own mortality. With time, residents seemed to find effective ways of dealing with their feelings about aging and death. In our questionnaire, the vast majority of participants (80.5%) reported that living in a retirement community had positively influenced their thoughts and feelings about aging.
One reason that residents were able to deal with some of the negative consequences of aging is that they recognized the unique support that was afforded them by living in a CCRC. As stated by a 76-year-old woman:
The thing that's so nice here, I think, it opened our eyes a lot to death type of thing because everybody knows everybody so well here that when somebody passes away you know we know each other so well that they don't go close themselves up. . . Community makes a big difference in how you can handle death and other big problems like that.
So, instead of turning inward and coping individualistically with issues related to declining health and death, many residents relied on each other for support. These are issues all the residents face, and consequently, they adopted a collective orientation toward them (a process that has been labeled communal coping; Lyons, Mickelson, Sullivan, & Coyne, 1998). Unlike other aspects of retirement community life, no formal structure exists for helping fellow residents. In many ways, the process seems intertwined with the very meaning of what a retirement community is, and therefore does not need to be formally instituted. As one man described:
As a matter of fact, there is a lesson to be learned. People say, "Oh, I couldn't go to a retirement home." You go to a retirement home, and everybody begins to help each other. It seems to be human nature. If someone doesn't raise his or her shade, we know something is wrong. And that sort of thing prevails around here.
In fact, in our Study 2 questionnaire, fully 85.9% of retirees reported feeling a sense of comfort knowing that other members of their retirement community were facing many of the same difficulties of aging.
Communal coping emerged in both emotional and instrumental domains, with the most frequently described coping behavior being providing emotional support to others. Specifically, many residents volunteered at their retirement community's care center. Although the care center is a part of each CCRC, a clear distinction exists between the lives of individuals there and those still living independently. Typically, residents in the care center are limited physically, and this will be the last place that many of them live before passing away. In an effort to help care-center residents maintain their connections to the broader CCRC, many healthier and younger residents visit them. As one man described:
It's very, very important to help people. It sounds trite, but it is true. They wither on the vine around here 'cause they have no one to talk to, no one to care for them. As they get old, they lose their minds, their bodies. So we all work together. We say something to them, we try to help them, lessen the load a bit. I think you find that in a retirement center . . . the really basic human elements come to the surface here, I think, because they are so weak, their kids are gone.
Providing support to individuals in the care center was something that nearly all the residents did at some point, with many residents reporting feeling a strong sense of compassion toward fellow residents in the final stages of life. However, a small group of residents said that they found it difficult to visit with individuals in the care center, as exemplified in this statement:
I have a hard time going into our care center or our assisted living to help people there. . . . There's a committee that cares for and does things for them, and I haven't. I just try to go in to see somebody once in a while if I know they need some company, but to do a regular job of caring for somebody, I don't think I can do it. Well, I haven't been able to do it.
We note, however, that some of the retirees who found it difficult to visit people in the care center described helping other residents in more instrumental ways, including driving people to appointments or to the store. As illustrated by the comments of one man:
Just about as long as we've been here, I've been going on the bus every time it goes to help older residents that have trouble, you know, with their groceries, and finding things in the store and that kind of thing. . . . So it makes me feel good to be able to do that for people, needy people. Now I don't volunteer in the care center because I'm not comfortable around sick people. But I'm just not good around sick people.
Although most participants who assisted others did not identify direct benefits to themselves from these actions, they did frequently suggest that their help was given in anticipation of their own needs for future assistance. That is, providing support while they are physically capable is viewed as one way to ensure future help when and if they need it. A 66-year-old woman described the importance of this reciprocal relationship:
I keep thinking there will be a time when I won't be able to do it, so I do as much as I can now. That's why I drive people to doctor's appointments now. . . . There will be a time when I won't be able to drive, and hopefully there will be somebody who will be doing that, so I do that now.
We also explored the connections between reports of health and the receipt and provision of assistance to others in our questionnaire data. Perceptions of support were positively related to both psychological and physical well-being. Participants who felt emotionally supported by community members had lower rates of depression (r= -.26, p= .01) and rated their health as better (r = .42, p < .001). Moreover, providing emotional support to others was positively related to life satisfaction (r = .22, p = .03) and self-rated health (r = .29, p = .01). These analyses suggest that, regardless of the benefits participants reported in the interviews, both receiving and providing emotional support positively impacted retirees' well-being.
Occasionally, residents found themselves facing larger and common problems for which they sought out communal ways of coping, drawing on each other for strength and support. In several instances, for example, a group of residents formed an informal support group. At one community, a man formed a support group to help men deal with the deaths of their wives:
One of the things I noticed that there are a number of men who lose their wives after they move in here and for some reason, which I don't really understand, it's much harder on a man when he loses his wife than it is on a wife when she loses her husband. And so at a point in time, why there were several man friends of mine who lost their wives after I did, and I saw they were having problems, so I suggested that we have a, um uh, set up a Bereavement Committee which would be especially for men who lost their wives . . . and we all get together and . . . we talk about the kind of problems and it's been very successful.
At another community, a group of residents who had been caring for two other residents dying of cancer felt compelled to come together to talk about death and dying.
I was involved in the care of two close friends who had cancer and died . . . both of these women stayed in their own apartments, and they had a support group of a number of other residents . . . who provided a lot of the care and psychological and spiritual support. And it was about ten of us with the one of the two women, another resident, the woman who had cancer, we met fifteen times talking about dying.
One of the most frequently mentioned benefits of residing in a retirement community was the care that community members extend to each other. This care seems to emerge out of a feeling of solidarity and often concerning issues related to aging. As hard as it is to watch fellow residents and friends pass away, a sense of comfort emerges in their handling of these issues together. Residing in a community where everyone is facing the transition to later life, many residents find communal ways of coping with the challenges of aging and seem to empathize with and help each other (see Lawrence & Schigelone, 2002).
Thus, the overwhelming impression from our research participants was that moving to a CCRC had positively affected them. Of course, we had a self-selected group of respondents, and some may have been attempting to justify their own current life circumstances. Still, the impression remains that moving to a CCRC is a positive way for aging adults to live in the Third and Fourth Age. Although the transition to a CCRC is not free of problems, residents consistently and persuasively described the advantages of living in a retirement community.
In furthering understanding of the Third Age, researchers and individuals who work with aging adults should recognize the different institutions that engage individuals at this life stage and how these institutions impact peoples lives. A growing number of "active adult" retirement communities target individuals in the Third Age. In this chapter, we have focused on the lives of residents in CCRCs, and we have tried to illustrate some of the factors at play in decisions to move to CCRCs and that shape the quality of life in them. Specifically, we focused on the transition to a community and the common experiences that residents share. Our description is only a partial image of life in a CCRC and is not likely to generalize to all retirement communities and residents. However, we believe that our exploration has helped identify some of the key issues for a growing segment of the population as well as for future research.
By examining the life histories of residents in three CCRCs, we found that many felt that moving to a CCRC was a significant event in their lives. The decision to move was the result of a long process for some and was often motivated by anticipated support needs. And, for many, acknowledging possible support needs conflicted with their desire to remain independent. Relocating to a CCRC seemed the perfect solution; it helped them to balance their anticipated future dependence with their desire to remain active and independent. Furthermore, our findings suggest that relocating to a CCRC may provide benefits less readily afforded retirees who "age in place," such as very active and rich social lives. And, although active and social lifestyles were common in all three communities we studied, different and unique aspects of the communities influenced how participants lived their lives and socialized with each other. For example, residents in communities that had assigned seating in the dining hall reported the formation of fewer cliques and a stronger sense of community than did residents of communities with open seating. In light of this finding, we suggest that further exploration of the structure and policies of retirement communities, and especially how these influence broader socialization and community life, is warranted.
Finally, and as we think is clear from our research, several unforeseen benefits are derived from community living for aging individuals. For example, within each of the CCRCs we studied, a strong sense of caring and compassion developed among residents, especially with regard to the aging process and physical deterioration. While acknowledging other differences, our participants overwhelmingly felt a sense of compassion toward fellow residents facing problems related to aging and death, and communal methods of coping developed. By helping each other, residents provided needed care to fellow residents, began to confront their own feelings about aging and dying, and also (hopefully) ensured future support for themselves. We are intrigued by these observations, and some of the mechanisms that they suggest may be at work in retirement-community living. Thus, we believe that the consequences of active and communal living are topics ripe for future research, and also are likely to have practical implications for the structure and operation of age-specific residential communities.
Although we cannot generalize the experiences reported by our participants to all retirees, we found it instructive that so many residents who took part in our research reported similar concerns and experiences. As such, our research suggests that certain experiences may be fairly common among retirees who choose to move to retirement communities, whether or not they are common to all retirees. If most retirees experience these concerns (e.g., about being a burden to children, for socializing, related to declining health and death), it would be important to explore other ways that retirees deal with them as well as the different outcomes that may result. From our research, it appears that relocating to a CCRC is one positive way to live during retirement. Much is still to be learned about the lives of retirement community residents and the roles that retirement communities play as an institution of the Third Age. We look forward to future theorizing and systematic research on these topics, as well as to the practical benefits that such work will provide for aging adults.
1 The research described in this chapter was supported by a grant from the Fetzer Institute and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. Direct correspondence to Alien M. Omoto, School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences, Claremont Graduate University, 123 E. Eighth Street, Claremont, CA 91711; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Correspondence to Christina D. Aldrich should be sent to the same mailing address; e-mail: email@example.com. The authors thank several individuals for their assistance with this project, including Anita Boling, Anna M. Malsch, Michele M. Schlehofer, Viviane Seyrayani, and Tanya Valery, and also the participants for sharing their time, stories, and responses.
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Christina D. Aldrich, MA, Graduate Student, Department of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University, California
Allen M. Omoto, PhD, Professor, School of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences, Director of the Institute for Research on Social Issues, Claremont Graduate University, California…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Retirement Community Life: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities1. Contributors: Omoto, Allen M. - Author, Aldrich, Christina D. - Author. Journal title: Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics. Volume: 26. Publication date: January 1, 2006. Page number: 283+. © Springer Publishing Company 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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