Plan for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities

Last Updated: October 23, 2022

When you first hear the term naturally occurring retirement communities, it's a little jarring. What kind of government-talk are these people speaking? Then you encounter the acronym, NORC, and I find it even funnier.

older couple resting on seating wall

Essentially a NORC happens when people have stayed in their communities for a long time, and now they are retired and aging. We also will take a look at aging in place, a related concept that can applied at the individual household level as well as the community level.

When you reflect a little on the last 70 years of housing decisions in the U.S., it makes more sense. Naturally occurring retirement communities happen internationally wherever suburbs or neighborhoods were marketed heavily to a particular age group. 

After World War II, many new suburbs were built quickly in the U.S. to accommodate returning veterans who wanted to establish households, settle down, and get out of their parents' homes as quickly as possible.

Because of financing deals that subdivisions offered, as well as the way the homes were designed and marketed, often young families grouped together in a particular area.

If the suburb or neighborhood was successful and proved to be a delightful place to raise a family, folks stayed. Community stability has been the happy result.

But now, a number of 1950s and 1960s suburbs, as well as other types of neighborhoods, face a predominantly aging population, ranging from the frail elderly end of the continuum to the baby boomers themselves, now mature adults well past retirement age.

So sages they may be, but their bodies are beginning to wear out, and the twin ravages of dementia and Alzheimer's disease take their toll as well.

When one person in a couple dies or experiences chronic or lengthy health problems, suddenly certain household or personal activities are not being addressed properly. These are typical issues in naturally occurring retirement communities.

Pretty soon a household that is not functioning needs help. If it is one household on a block of neighbors who know one another, a private and informal network generally will spring up to pitch in.

But when the number of households needing help exceeds the time, energy, health, and resources of available helpers, typical naturally occurring retirement community problems arise.

Although some of the challenges of the high median age community may seem daunting, the best approach is to keep in mind that these communities can be highly successful if the wisdom, experience, and candor of the older adult population can be harnessed to think through the new typical life situation in the neighborhood.

Senior Transportation Services in Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities

Often the local governments of naturally occurring retirement communities are asked to step in to provide transportation services, if that has not happened already.

Some communities can fund a small bus service that collects riders either in a retirement complex or assisted living facility and delivers them to specific destinations, sometimes waiting until everyone has finished shopping and taking care of business.

The destinations often include the grocery store, beauty salon, doctor's offices, senior center, and a discount store. Usually hours and destinations are limited. Typically a reservation is required for pick-up at a single-family residence.

There are infinite variations on this theme, but alternative transportation is often a key service needed at a NORC. Some younger taxpayers may complain that there is no public benefit, or they might make the snarkier argument that the public benefit is getting older drivers off the road.

But since the retirement age population tends to vote at a more reliable rate than younger people, the retirees often prevail.

It's important also to create a walkable community, with additional considerations of how to make it a bikeable community.

Some elders may be able to walk, bike, or take their tricycle or motorized bicycle to places they need to go. This helps both provide exercise options and provide transportation for some who cannot drive or don't want the expense and hassle of maintaining a car.

Alterations to Housing to Assist Aging in Place

A second major topic facing naturally occurring retirement communities arises from characteristics of the housing stock. It's obvious in the case of multi-family buildings, such as three-floor “walk-ups” where people lived for years in major cities without benefit of an elevator.

Suddenly the walk up becomes too difficult or even impossible, and people become near prisoners in homes that they own or have rented for many years.

But also this occurs in the ranch-style one-story homes built in post-World War II America, and no doubt in other places in the globe as well. The two or three steps up to the front door weren't ever even considered, but now they are a problem.

The steps to the basement mean that elders can't access their basement laundry and storage areas, and if something goes wrong with the furnace or water heater in the middle of the night, well, they have to wait until morning to call someone.

Steps are an obvious issue, but then there are also the issues arising when the older adult needs a temporary or permanent wheelchair or walker.

There may be a sudden need for wider doorways, wider hallways, a higher comfort-level toilet with a grab bar nearby, a grab-bar in the bathtub, a walk-in shower with no barrier step, a different kitchen counter height, lighter weight doors, easier to turn doorknobs, and a whole host of modifications that fall under the description universal design.

A sub-specialty of interior design now has arisen to address these needs.  In fact, the National Association of Home Builders has a program to create Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists. The aging in place movement attempts to answer all of these housing concerns and more.  Incidentally, the National Association of Realtors also has a specialty senior certification.

The outdoor environment may present quite a problem too. Lawn maintenance may need to be minimized because now it is a contract service instead of a homeowner responsibility. Even the exterior entrances may need to be modified, with ramps replacing steps. Elaborate landscaping beds may need to be replaced with perennials.

Since staying in their homes is what most older individuals want, communities should do their best to support that, in our opinion.

Some community development experts argue that it's best to allow the housing to turn over as quickly as possible, but we disagree with that, simply on a humanitarian basis and because of the incredible rising costs of out-of-home care.

Planning ahead for a future in which the old and the young people moving in need to co-exist happily is wonderful, but moving the older folks out before they need continuous help to conduct the activities of daily living doesn't speak well for the human potential for continuous growth and contribution to one's community.

If you are a planning commission member in one of the naturally occurring retirement communities, it makes great sense to encourage the improvements that will assist the current aging population but also be popular with a variety of younger folks in the future.

Universal design, for example, benefits not only the geriatric set but also the people who are temporarily or permanently disabled. And a wider hall and the elimination of steps don't really hurt anyone of any age.

Think about how much easier it might be to take the baby and the toddler out for a walk if you could push the stroller up the ramp while carrying the baby  instead of dragging the toddler up steps that look really tall when you’re really short. And then you still have to go back outside to get the stroller!

We are not urging that the elected officials and active citizens of a NORC necessarily devote 100 percent of their attention to the aging population. Far from it, we think that many benefits appropriate to the elderly also can help new moms and busy parents. In fact, we find in our experience as planners that elderly residents often are quite concerned about younger generations and are eager to help with planning a positive future for their community. 

An Array of Senior Services Is Needed

Services to older adults in naturally occurring retirement communities may have to increase. These include "meals on wheels," as the lunch delivery service is called, or possibly a daily lunch at the senior center. In the U.S. both of these activities may be federally subsidized to some extent.

These services may exist already, but may require scaling up in size. Additional medical services, especially 24-hour clinics, nurse practitioners, and home health workers, may be necessary or helpful.

Home services in general, including housekeeping, personal assistants, and simple home repairs, may need to be provided on a for-profit, non-profit, or even governmental basis. In short, a continuum of services that can step up gradually, or step up and down with temporary needs, helps keep the population in their homes.

The good news is that many of these services can be private enterprises that create badly needed jobs, including low-skill jobs, that benefit the teen children of the people who are moving in as older residents give up their long-time homes.

Senior Villages for Neighborhood Services

Recently the concept of the senior "village" has arisen. Despite the name, it doesn't represent a change in living arrangement, but rather is a collaboration on services. That might be all the human services we've been describing, or something else that the elders want in a disproportionate amount, such as computer instruction and/or assistance or rides to the airport.

This version of a private club will be as applicable to naturally occurring retirement communities as to senior living housing complexes. If people are attempting to organize a village in your locale, be sure to help them out with resources or even advice if requested. Enriching the lives of your seniors will only serve to keep them engaged with life and maintaining their property.

Rethinking the Senior Citizen High-Rise

Some architects in New York have observed 27 naturally occurring retirement communities in New York, many of them in high-rise buildings or complexes.

They argue that the "tower in the park," the subject of much derision by urbanists in general, actually may be an ideal environment for older adults. You can read more about NORCs in New York City here.  We would say this would be true only in elevator buildings, not those tall walk-ups one often sees in Europe!

Things to Think About With An Aging Population

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
  2.  ›
  3. Housing Issues
  4.  › Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities

Join GOOD COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, and rural or small town environments. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.