NORCs: Unique Havens for an Aging America

Naturally occurring retirement communities keep seniors connected and in their homes.

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Lillian Miceli owns her home, has no plans to leave, and looks forward to many more good years. But, at 89, with knees "that are shot," she needs a lot of help to remain independent. Fortunately, a program in the western suburbs of St. Louis sends volunteer students from Washington University in St. Louis to tend her yard. Pete Pozefsky, a Boeing engineer who lives in the area and volunteers for the program, stops by to help her solve a computer problem, then sticks around to move some heavy boxes. Other volunteers periodically assist with physically demanding chores, and staffers of this unique program provide social and community support services.

[Photo Gallery: Inside the St. Louis NORC.]

Miceli lives in a "naturally occurring retirement community," also known as a NORC. This one, in St. Louis, includes 600 members and offers a range of services to aging seniors who choose to remain in their homes. Services include home repair, social activities, volunteer support, and discounts at local merchants. The St. Louis program charges modest dues but gets most of its funding from grants and relies extensively on volunteers.

Overwhelmingly, people who are getting older want to stay in their homes, and their numbers are soaring. Nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, or 40 million Americans, will be at least 65 years old next year. By 2040, there will be twice as many, and 28 million of them will be at least 80 years old, according to Census Bureau projections. NORCs, which sprouted up about 20 years ago, have multiplied to approximately 300 throughout the country today. They are located in areas with heavy concentrations of seniors and are "natural" in the sense that they are not brick-and-mortar retirement complexes that seniors move into.

These new communities have become more popular as they have become easier to arrange, enabled by online communications tools that help connect members to support services and merchants who participate in these neighborhood-centric programs. They're designed to be small and responsive to member needs, and members may live in high-rises, suburban apartment complexes, or single-family homes. Programs exist in densely populated cities, suburbs, and even rural areas. Some have high-income members who pay hefty fees for self-supporting programs that emphasize discounted merchant services, and others, like the one in St. Louis, are centered in more modest neighborhoods. And still other NORCs receive government support and provide extensive social services, which is the case in a network of more than 50 such communities in metropolitan New York.

Lois Perryman and Sherrell Pflueger are seated in the basement of Perryman's home in front of her aged PC (running Windows 95), trying to figure out how to use a spreadsheet program. Perryman, 67, is a member of the St. Louis program, as is Pflueger, 73, a retired consultant who spent much of her career working with defense contractors on computer projects. Today, Pflueger is providing volunteer support to Perryman, although she admits that her own computer skills could use some work and that she, too, will need more volunteer PC training.

Personal payoff. Perryman, who is not completely retired, uses the computer to track the social-work clients she still serves. Her most important client was her dad. Perryman moved in with her father, Sheldon Katz, and looked after him for eight years during a period of physical decline and dementia that preceded his death in 2006 at the age of 88. "It was a privilege to help my dad," says Perryman. "I had those last eight years to get close to him." To Karen Berry Elbert, who manages the St. Louis program, hearing about Perryman's close relationship with her father provides yet another reminder of why her job benefits go well beyond a paycheck. Berry Elbert has overseen the program since 2002 when it was one of about 45 NORCs in cities throughout the country that received federal funds under a pilot program fashioned by the United Jewish Communities. Nearly all of those programs, which are open to non-Jewish members, still exist and have developed various alternative funding sources. The St. Louis program has been particularly successful in drawing members.