Retirement Community Life: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities1

Article excerpt

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.


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. …