There were no formalized retirement communities 50 years ago. But on New Year's Day of 1960, Del Webb invited the public to take a look at his new Sun City complex outside of Phoenix. According to company history, Webb wasn't sure how many people would show up. But when he tried to drive to the event, he found the roads so clogged he was forced to hire a helicopter to make it into Sun City. The official tally would later show that more than 100,000 people had turned out to see his vision of a retirement community.
Del Webb died in 1974 and his company is now a division of Pulte Homes. There are numerous Sun Cities across the country. The original Sun City has gone through a major life cycle transition during its 50 years. Its explosive growth led to thousands of homes and turned the area first into a national model and, later, into a stereotype of undesirable retirement living, much like Leavittown had become when that early pioneer of tract homes opened in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s. Today, more than 48,000 people live in Sun City, but the focus of the complex and of senior communities in general reflect how much the concept of retirement has changed in the past 50 years.
"In 1960, the typical buyer in Sun City was a married couple," says company spokesperson Jacque Petroulakis. "The wife typically had never worked. They were retired. They didn’t work anymore. . . . Think of today's demographics compared with 1960," she continues. "People are working longer, and both people [in a couple] are working. . . . Half the people in our communities are working today versus 1 or 2 percent in 1960."
Webb focuses on the 50-plus market, and its communities have been pushing a youth movement for some time. Physical fitness facilities have expanded along with group learning and cultural activities. The homes themselves have become steadily larger over time, although a move back to smaller homes has emerged since the national recession and housing meltdown.
And beyond Webb, senior communities have mushroomed over the years. In addition to the active lifestyle communities of Webb and 55-plus developments, retirement communities have sprung up for older residents as well. While nursing homes still house millions of older Americans, most occupants are infirm and unable to live independently. Meanwhile, improvements in health and longevity have created a generation of very healthy and active people in their 70s and 80s.
For healthy seniors with financial resources, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) and other unassisted living facilities have grown into a sizable industry. But with average ages of new residents in their early 80s, these complexes are also looking for younger residents. A challenge for many communities is that people are staying active and healthy into much later ages. The continuing care features of CCRCs are not such a strong draw for this group.
The retirement label is not popular, either, these days. And another consistent change involves the movement of the senior housing industry away from sameness to variety. "In 1960 it was easy to generalize about what consumers wanted," Petroulakis says. "Today, the group is just way too diverse to generalize."
Almost since the first cookie-cutter living units started popping up in senior housing complexes around the country, developers have been striving to find cost-effective ways to create unique housing and living experiences. In recent years, the trend has extended to dining plans. Where one daily meal used to be a standard fixture of many senior facilities, a la carte dining has emerged as a popular way of letting residents tailor their own dining experiences.
Different residential living agreements have also proliferated during the recession, as communities tried to expand ways in which their offerings were attractive to prospective residents. Today, consumers can choose from many living and care plans.