NORCs: Unique Havens for an Aging America

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

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Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, says that the federation wanted to provide more elderly services. "There is a very profound commitment to aged services within the Jewish tradition," he says, and services to seniors have been "a leading priority." The Jewish community is much older than the national average. A national UJC census in 2001 found that people ages 65 and up accounted for 19 percent of Jews.

The St. Louis program's expenses run about $300,000 a year, which breaks down to roughly $500 per member. Members pay a small portion of this—$30 per person or $45 per couple annually. Most funds are raised from public and private sources, including a $127,000 state grant this year. Expenses for residents are extremely modest compared with nursing homes, which can cost $75,000, and full-time home healthcare, nearing $100,000 a year. Berry Elbert and her four colleagues think that they're a real bargain. So does Jill Schupp, a Missouri state representative whose district includes the NORC: "I'm hopeful that we will be smart enough to recognize that, dollar for dollar, this is a great use of our taxpayers' money."

Sharing memories. Older community members may live quietly, but they have rich and emotional stories to share about their past lives. Frank Friedman, 90, was a P-38 fighter pilot in World War II. He has long kept physically fit and active by helping to put on an annual Broadway show in the area. Bess Fine, also 90, worked with him on the show, and the two have become very close. "Her patio faces my patio," Friedman says lightheartedly, but Fine is quick to add that this is as close as the relationship will get. "We find it better to not be married," she says, "and our children don't feel threatened" by estate squabbles that could emerge if they were married.

Two years ago, Fine had a serious heart attack. She credits the program for providing her with access to a chair yoga class that helped her relearn how to breathe. "I don't want my life to be spent attached to an oxygen tank," she says. "Through the NORC, I have a much higher quality of life," which includes frequent outings with other community members. "I don't know what we'd do without it," she says of the program. "At Frank's age and at my age, a lot of our friends are gone."

Friedman and Fine can often be found at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which donates the space for a chair yoga class. Before one recent class, attendees hugged one another like long-lost friends. Many of the 20 or so participants are frail; walkers, wheelchairs, and signs of other infirmities show why chairs must be used for the class. Members do some movements standing but generally stay seated for breathing and meditation exercises. As the class winds down, instructor Joyce Lawrence asks people what they are thankful for that day. Answers include their spouses and waking up that morning. Lillian Miceli says she is thankful for Nicky, her 11-year-old bichon.

A monthly blood-pressure screening is also available through a partner agency and is conducted by nurse Pam Allen. "This group is pretty healthy," she observes, "and I think that's because of the physical exercise they do." Allen is a home-care nurse with many elderly patients. "I see the other side, and they are not so healthy."

Aside from excursions to area museums, educational programs, and entertainment, many activities and services are home based. The St. Louis program, like most others throughout the country, has fixed geographic membership boundaries. It's in an unincorporated part of St. Louis County and includes a few streets in adjacent Creve Coeur, Mo.—a roughly circular area that fans out for 3 miles from a complex of St. Louis Jewish community buildings, where program activities are centered. Only people within this area can participate in community activities. The exclusion has led to some bruised feelings from those on the outside who would like to join. But by limiting the area, Berry Elbert explains, the program retains a local, neighborhood focus. It allows for a deeper understanding of area residents, enables organizers to build a network of local merchants offering discounted services (another common feature of NORCs), and makes it easy to develop resident councils within individual neighborhoods and housing complexes.