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Issue Date: May 2008 Issue


The New Independents

Leave the ‘R’ word out of it.
New ideas for housing geared toward mature adults lure them from the nest sooner.

Kristen Hampshire
The children are gone, your career is slowing down, and yard work is cramping your travel plans. You’ve outgrown the old neighborhood. Your priorities are different now, and you’re ready for a lifestyle that doesn’t require so much work. What next?

“I’m amazed at the people in their 50s and 60s who are saying, ‘I’m fed up with the house and the yard,’ ” says Cynthia Dunn, president and CEO of Judson Services Inc., which broke ground last September on South Franklin Circle in Chagrin Falls, designed as a community for “postcareer” adults, with town homes, apartments and cottages.

Leave the “R” word — that’s “retirement,” as in “retirement home” — out of the picture.

Adults in the 55-plus group are seeking a living situation that gives them freedom to travel, or not; to participate in community activities, or not. The old idea that giving up a house means forfeiting independence is out of fashion. “We don’t think everyone wants to retire and be entertained,” Dunn remarks.

These days, mature adults are more likely to move out of the old family nest sooner. They see moving into a condo, cluster home, villa or other freestanding residence in a planned community as a fearless act of independence — not a sentence to Parcheesi and dining hall food.

“I think for older people beyond a certain age, there is still an assumption that you’ve had your life, now you have the right to relax — and for many people, that’s not a prize,” says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, mother of former Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell. Campbell was one of the early signers reserving a home in South Franklin Circle, which is set to open in September 2009. “The prize is to continue living a life and being current and involved.”

The focuses of many budding planned communities are connection to neighbors, low-maintenance living and, in some places, a health care safety net. While some are age restricted for the 55-plus crowd, others are attractive to both ends of the age spectrum: young professionals as well as “done professionals.”

Condos, clusters and residences in planned communities are all selling at a fast pace, says Bob Szarek, 60, a senior real estate specialist and a West Side team leader at Realty One Real Living. These buyers aren’t considering “assisted living,” and they don’t want the retirement label on their new home, but they appreciate that health care is available on site or close by.

For some, the no-strings-attached lifestyle is a return to how they lived before kids.

“My wife and I had no children for seven years after we were married — we had that free-and-easy life,” Szarek relates. “Back then, we had a condo in Florida and a primary residence here. We did back then what we are now doing again today.”

The Decision to Move On

Joyce Bobonik searched for a year before finding Pioneer Ridge in North Ridgeville. She had raised her children in her split-level home in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. Once they grew up, she was alone and tired of driving 20 minutes to exercise or entertain herself by window shopping.

“I could have stayed where I was, but I wanted something to do other than sit and play solitaire,” remarks Bobonik, 70.

So she looked at condos on the West Side, but they were too confining. She considered cluster-home neighborhoods, but she wanted more community

involvement. She wanted a newer one-level home and activities within walking distance. With the help of a real estate agent, she bought a two-bedroom, two-bath ranch in Pioneer Ridge, Del Webb’s designated 55-plus community. “It’s diverse,” Bobonik says, naming some neighbors who have spouses in their 40s, and others who are her age and older.

Bobonik’s big thing is freedom. She can eat with a group or cook for herself at home. She can play bocce and tennis or read by herself. “Here I have a choice,” she emphasizes.

For many mature adults, a house simply isn’t all it once was. And unlike many of their parents, who stayed in their homes until their next step wasn’t a choice, baby boomers are evaluating their living situations now.

“My father was a prime example of someone who should have made a decision [to move] sooner,” Szarek says. “He had some health issues, which he overcame, but the primary caregiver was his wife, who had Parkinson’s disease. It was necessary for him to sell his home and go into an independent-lifestyle community. He did so after lots of encouragement.”

Szarek, on the other hand, moved with his wife to a town home after his daughter left for college. Like many of his clients, he didn’t want less room, just a more convenient and compact floor plan. His community included a cross section of residents: young professionals, empty nesters like Szarek and some older adults. “It was fun,” he says simply, though he and his wife have since moved to another Westlake neighborhood. “There was a community pool, there were people of all ages, you had a nice mix.”

Some baby boomers search early for a planned community, or at least a low-maintenance condo, because they don’t want their children to decide for them, says Lucy Nixon, marketing director of Breckenridge Village in Willoughby.

“People will come in and say, ‘We just got done taking care of Mom and Dad, and we never want our kids to have to do this,’ ” Nixon relates. “They really want to make their own decision, and they don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”

Breckenridge Village is a 32-acre property that contains freestanding ranch homes and clusters, apartments, a nursing home and hybrid brownstones with condo amenities and on-site health care.

The brownstones are sold out. “We have people who come here in their early 60s, and they want different things today than people 20 years ago,” Nixon says.

Winston and Mary Fran Bachmann, 80 and 70, respectively, moved to a three-bedroom ranch home in Breckenridge Village last year after selling their four-bedroom colonial in Lyndhurst. Their grown children live in California, Arizona and Japan — too far to stop in to check on them.

“We don’t need anything right now,” Winston says. But the couple can take advantage of health services or someday “graduate” to assisted living or nursing care without leaving the community.

Moving sooner is similar to contributing to a retirement fund well in advance, says Judson’s Dunn. “The earlier we invest, the better payback we get,” she says. “People are investing in a lifestyle that really improves their odds of having successful older years so they can do what they want to do.”

Szarek says many baby boomers have more financial security than the generation before them because of inherited assets. Their parents saved money, and baby boomers are spending it to secure a suitable lifestyle. So what were assisted living and retirement communities have evolved. “There are so many of us baby boomers,” Szarek says. “We are healthier, we are living longer. We created the need.”

More Options, More Freedom

Dunn describes an advertising campaign that will begin soon for South Franklin Circle. The clip shows a physician volunteering his services by researching rare diseases and a professional photographer traveling the world. It mentions a soon-to-be resident organizing religious programming at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York.

There is no sign of retirement, no indication of slowing down. Instead, the focus is on life enrichment, fulfilling goals and dreams, doing what was put on hold for years when family came first. Eighty is the new 60.

“We don’t use the ‘R’ word,” Dunn says. She also hesitates to throw around the phrase “active adult community.” “It almost sounds like summer camp for adults,” she remarks. The term “assisted living” implies a real need for care, and nursing homes are perceived as institutional, standardized end-of-life care facilities. All these tags are outdated, and the old language is “paternalistic,” she argues. “Let’s let people be responsible for their outcomes,” she says.

Breckenridge Village is building a satellite campus within walking distance from its main community. Focus groups are helping to determine what the new school of buyers wants, discussing “green” living, technology,amenities and finances.

“This is the first time in a long time we’ve had a clean slate to work with,” Nixon says. “The easiest thing for us to do would be to build what we already have. But this is an opportunity to step back and build what will meet the needs of people 20 years from now.” Nixon can bet that the word “condo” will enter the conversation frequently.

Szarek divides the new independent living market into four categories: continued-care retirement communities, planned communities, cluster and townhouse neighborhoods, and freestanding homes in typical subdivisions. He says there isn’t much competition among the four groups. Those who want a cluster home aren’t looking for the neighborhood activities that planned communities offer. People who choose a continued-care facility like Breckenridge want the safety net of nursing staff on site, and care less about the age diversity of residents.

John Jensen, president and owner of August Homes, builder of the Cottage Gate cluster home community in Avon, says the mix of residents in the 22-home neighborhood appeals to young professionals and empty nesters who want low-maintenance living and privacy. He has sold cluster homes to a semiretired surgeon, a young couple, and a couple with other homes on Catawba Island and in Florida.

“They want to play golf instead of mow grass,” Jensen says.

Now, Ohioans don’t have to leave the state to find a free-and-easy lifestyle. “Long ago, assisted living was possibly the only option if you wanted to stay in Ohio,” says Carol Barrett, who moved from her Bay Village condo to Pioneer Ridge last year.

Mary Spenthoff, general sales manager for Del Webb, developer of Pioneer Ridge, has noticed more people returning from Florida homes thanks to the new housing options. “They can take advantage of resort-style living while still staying close to family, grandchildren and everyday conveniences and world-class medical facilities here in Cleveland,” she says.

The focus is on moving their homes, not changing their lives — or leaving the choice to their children. “It’s a big act of independence to say, ‘I’m making this choice,’ ” Campbell confirms.

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