Remember when retirement meant a rocking chair and watching TV all day? Neither do these retirees. Today’s seniors are trading in spacious suburban homes for luxury condos and active retirement communities—and all the fun that comes with it.
Barbara Rosenfeld, 82, moved to a three-bedroom condo at Alexandria House in North Old Town in 2011, leaving the four-story historic townhouse where she’d lived with her late husband for 20 years after their four children went off to college. After his death in 2010, she says, the house was “much too big and more than I wanted to deal with.”
Her current home, which she shares with her partner, features a balcony with a river view, plenty of sunlight and enough room to accommodate visiting family. And it’s only a half-mile from where she used to live.
“I love Old Town and I was happy to think of staying here,” says Rosenfeld. She’s a block from grocery shopping and a gym, and visits the walking path by the river every day. She plays bridge with her neighbors.
Rosenfeld’s situation—downsizing after retirement—isn’t a new phenomenon. But for many seniors, finding a home where they can be just as active as people half their age, is.
With the senior population exploding (according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 10,000 people turn 65 in the United States every day) and seniors living longer, healthier lives, it makes sense they’d want to find a home or community that meets their active needs. Plus, a recent report from AARP notes that 87% of seniors want to stay in their own home or community after retirement—not move to a golf course in Florida.
“A lot of seniors aren’t looking for a place to slow down, they’re looking for a place to keep going,” says Matt Leighton, a realtor at Century 21 Redwood Realty. “No one wants to go to an old folks home or a retirement home.”
In some ways, older adults are looking for the same sorts of things millennials and Gen Zers are looking for when buying a new home: plenty of convenience, walkable areas, social opportunities, the ability to easily meet a friend for coffee, take a yoga class or pick up a few things at the store without getting in the car and driving 20 minutes.
“Being close to everything is the biggest amenity,” Leighton says of his clients. “We can find the best building in the world, but if it’s (inconvenient) no one wants to live there. A lot of incredible residences are brutal to get to. Location and walkability is what seniors value.”
Walkability was key for Brenda Bloch-Young, 72, when she purchased her condo off King Street. Her “small-but-new” one-bedroom with den doesn’t offer a lot of amenities, she says, but it’s an easy walk to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, CVS and plenty of restaurants. The Metro is less than 20 minutes on foot, she says, and, pre-pandemic, she was going into DC at least twice a week to visit museums and take classes with the Smithsonian Associates. “This is a great place to live,” she says.
She moved to Alexandria in 2013 from Westchester County, New York. Widowed when her children were young, she’d gone from a 3,200-square-foot house on 3 acres in the woods, to a 2,000-square-foot condo—and, after retirement, she wanted to downsize even more.
“I knew I wanted to travel, I knew I wanted to live a simpler life,” she says. “It’s wonderful to get rid of all that stuff when you’re still able to do it. Don’t wait until you’re no longer mentally or physically able to sort through all that stuff.”
Her son, who was living in DC, told her, “Mom, I think Old Town Alexandria would be perfect for you.” She said, “That’s crazy, what kid in their 20s knows a good place to retire?”
But when she was visiting him, she got on the Metro and walked around. The next visit, she stayed in Old Town. “The more I visited, the more I fell in love with it,” she says.
For other seniors, they’re looking for an active lifestyle that also comes with a built-in community.
That’s how Fred and Janice Tello, both in their 70s, felt when they moved into a two-level townhouse at Birchwood at Brambleton in Loudoun County in March 2019.
They’d been looking to downsize, to give up the yard work and to find like-minded friends.
“We were looking for people who were in the same time frame as us and who would have a lot of the same interests,” says Fred.
In fact, many builders are capitalizing on the trend of a demand for active elder care. There are nearly 2,000 continuing care communities in the U.S. right now, and more to come.
According to a 2019 survey from Builder Online, a construction industry publication, 44% of the companies on its Builder 100 list of the biggest residential developers in the U.S. were constructing active “adult communities” for seniors in 2019. That was up a whopping 40% from just 2018.
“We wanted to create an atmosphere or lifestyle where buyers have similar interests or hobbies,” says Kim Adams, director of marketing for Birchwood at Brambleton. “We wanted to break the mold of what an active community looks like.”
Fred takes part in the popular bocce ball league, Janice plays board games, canasta and is in a book club, and they both enjoy walks around the lake, which they can see from their roof terrace. “She was so happy when we found something by the water,” Fred says of his wife. “We love sitting on our patio reading and taking in the view.”
Fred has become an unofficial photographer of sorts for the community, capturing images of Birchwood’s natural beauty. They’ve been invited to (pre-pandemic) birthday parties and social gatherings in other residents’ homes.
“It’s an active community of people our age who have similar interests and with whom we’ve been able to develop relationships,” says Janice.
“It’s been so easy to meet people and develop friendships,” adds her husband. “That’s been a big plus.”
The location is convenient, close to shopping and dining areas, and a short drive from their son, his wife and their three children in Falls Church. They also have a daughter who lives in California.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” says Fred. “We absolutely love it.”
Condo or community? That’s one of the main decisions seniors are making when they decide to downsize. And an important factor for some seniors is the built-in social opportunities that come along with living in a community or even some apartment buildings.
“They want TGIF events, they want wine tastings and seasonal events, something to do,” Leighton says. “They’re uprooting their entire life and social circle, the social events these buildings put on is a great way to do that.”
A recent client of Leighton’s moved to The Belvedere in Rosslyn, which features “every amenity under the sun,” large floor plans, a library, tennis and pickleball courts, a party room, a car wash bay and more. Older clients also tend to prefer buildings that have fewer units per floor, he says, such as the Crystal Gateway in Arlington, because they offer closer proximity to elevators and laundry rooms, as well as the convenience of having a concierge service.
“It’s extremely convenient to live in an apartment with a concierge,” says Rosenfeld. “When I’d go away on vacation before, I’d have to worry about securing everything in the house, worry about the mail, watering the garden. I began to get anxious about off-street parking when I had to walk a few blocks. I love being able to drive into a lighted garage.”
Ultimately, however, if someone is looking for a lot of built-in activities and socializing, a senior community might make more sense than a condo or apartment complex.
Birchwood at Brambleton, where the Tellos live, features a 20,000-square-foot clubhouse that Adams calls the “gem of the community.” The clubhouse features an indoor and outdoor pool, a demonstration kitchen, an art studio and a health-and-wellness wing. Residents can take part in trivia nights and sports viewings, take exercise classes and play pickleball, and fish off the nearby pier.
“We really have designed the community for a lot of activity so people can find some connection,” Adams says. “We want people to be able to enjoy life. We’ve tried to put as many things in place so they can meet new people and really enjoy the next phase of their lives. We’re glad we’ve been able to help people connect and meet new people.”
As the trend of seniors looking for active opportunities continues, Northern Virginia is seeing even more of these types of communities become available.
For example, The Mather in Tysons, slated for opening in 2023, is a $450 million project that’s the largest of its kind in the U.S. It is being touted as a “forward-thinking life plan community for those 62 and better that defies expectation of what senior living is supposed to be,” according to the website. The campus will feature two residential buildings of spacious homes with cuttting-edge smart-home technology and gourmet kitchens, connected by a multistory building that includes high-end amenities like a wellness center, exercise studio, indoor pool, three restaurants and cocktail lounge, as well as 3 acres of outdoor space.
Also in the works is the Aspire at Old Town, which is due to start construction at the end of 2020. One of several resort-style retirement communities by Bonaventure under the Aspire name, the layout is designed to maximize ease and encourage social interaction.
“Senior depression is really common with older adults,” says Samantha Tricoli, director of asset management at Bonaventure. “As it becomes more difficult for seniors to do things outside of their home, it can be difficult to have interactions.”
The private residences mixed with on-site restaurants, spa, salon and more will allow for independent living with plenty of amenities and social access. Tricoli and her colleagues are collaborating with Ashley Dugger, general manager at Aspire at Carriage Hill in Richmond, to begin planning a framework for activity offerings.
Dugger works closely with the community members, from a resident council who helps her gauge what sorts of programs will be most amenable, to a film selection committee.
“We really try to think outside the box and include our residents; it’s a really collaborative process. We don’t want to just tell older adults what we think, they’re doing things they want to do,” says Dugger.
But even outside of planned communities like Aspire, Tricoli says, “the reason Alexandria is so great for seniors is that there’s so much to offer in such a small area.”
She referred to areas like Old Town, Arlington and Braddock Road as NORCs–naturally occurring retirement communities—where active seniors tend to gravitate for the walkability, access to restaurants and shops, and social opportunities.
“I’ve met wonderful people I feel comfortable with,” says Brenda Bloch-Young, referring to her new neighborhood in Alexandria. “This has been a very easy place to make new friends. A lot of people are hesitant to do that at my age. I’ve had no difficulty whatsoever making friends, or connecting in the community.”
She takes part in a walking group and has been a board member for At Home in Alexandria since 2014. She takes OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) classes at George Mason. She travels a lot, meeting up with her children “somewhere in the world” to celebrate holidays. Her dining room table—often a memory-packed piece of furniture for people of her generation—now serves as a console, rather than as a place to eat.
Indeed, passing the torch as holiday host has been the one difficult transition Barbara Rosenfeld has felt in her move to her condo in Old Town Alexandria.
“Eventually all those events gravitated to my kids’ homes,” she says. “It was a passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Now I am a guest, not the host. It’s not bad—now they get to do all the work, and I just cook a few dishes here and there! But it certainly was the biggest loss connected to moving out of a family home into an apartment.”