Is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Right for You?

Although they're nontraditional, these communities offer plenty of services and support.

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Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities have recently emerged as an attractive way for seniors in a local community to stay in their homes and tap into support services and volunteer programs. NORCs are what they sound like: senior communities that were not originally designed as so. They can be as small as an inner-city high rise or spread over a large suburban area. They're also small by design and usually span only a few square miles with a potential base of perhaps 1,000 to 3,000 people.

To some people, NORCs sound like nothing more than a modern-day replacement for close-knit family support. Fair enough. However, such systems don't exist for millions and millions of seniors. And even aging parents with nearby children and grandchildren often seek broader support networks-- they want to socialize with their peers and don't want to unduly burden their children. Truth be told, seniors also want a richer menu of evening entertainment than baby-sitting for Jack and Jill.

NORCs located in areas with high percentages of financially strapped seniors have developed strong relationships with local and state social-service agencies; they can help seniors access health-care and other public support programs. Options include transportation services, organized social activities, and in-home repair and maintenance.

Dramatic increases in life spans have turned 10 to 15 year retirements into 25 to 30 year opportunities for people to reinvent their lives and develop new pursuits and opportunities. However, without the proper support, these new lives run the risk of becoming health-challenged, dreary days spent in isolation. Perhaps the highest potential of NORCs is to help seniors stay connected and maintain vibrant community lives. Karen Berry Elbert manages a NORC in the St. Louis suburbs and tells the story of a 91-year-old woman who suggested starting a program for knitting and crocheting. That was a few years ago and both the program, and the woman, are still going strong. Aging "doesn't mean that when you're in your 90s or in your 80s you can't be a contributing member of society," she says. "One of the beauties of the NORC is that as long as you stay engaged and connected, you can age in place healthily."

You may already be in or near a NORC. Because NORCs are privately run and developed, and also new, there is no centralized clearinghouse of programs. There are, however, solid starting places online to help you locate NORCs and determine if there's a type of NORC that would seem to make the most sense for your community. The United Hospital Fund developed a helpful NORC Blueprint. United Jewish Communities is a NORC pioneer and began setting up demonstration NORCs in 2002, aided by federal support. Today, it has spawned roughly 45 programs around the country in 25 states. Aging agencies in many individual states have information on NORCs and other aging in place initiatives.

NORCs are focused on local needs and thus reflect individual communities. Mary Pivawer, who directs Senior Friendly Neighborhoods in northwest Baltimore, one of the most established AJC NORCs, is not jesting when she notes that "people say, when you've seen one NORC, you've seen one NORC." Funding, staffing, service concentrations and other key variables should reflect a specific community and not be provided through an off-the-shelf NORC model. Baltimore has a staff of 16 full and part-time people; St. Louis has three and a half full-time equivalents, Elbert says, "and then a whole lot of volunteers."

NORCs in affluent communities may be largely supported by member dues of $500 or even more per year. In neighborhoods with less wealth, seniors may pay little or nothing, with the bulk of the support coming from local foundations, charity-supported agencies and some government funds. To NORC administrators who often must pound the pavement to seek funding, the key requirement is a healthy mix of private and public funds.

Early NORCs have tended to emerge from institutional settings and often evolved as effective ways to deliver government-supported services. Looking ahead, however, the social-service delivery model may be surpassed by consumer-driven efforts among seniors to create NORCs in their own communities. A key, some NORC veterans believe, will be the evolving realization by large numbers of aging seniors that they must be more active in taking steps to build successful later lives. When they do, expect NORCs to sprout all over.