Where there were once mountains of Jell-O and endless rows of rockers on porches, there are now wine tastings and day spas. Choice is the buzzword for a wave of high-end senior communities opening or expanding in area communities.
As the industry prepares for the aging baby boomers, it’s starting to practice on their elders, who increasingly demand more options and financial flexibility. The products are not just indoor swimming pools and granite countertops but also a la carte pricing that allows retirees to tailor their services.
“The traditional ways aren’t necessarily the best ways,” said Patrick McShane, a spokesman for the Groves in Lincoln, a $130 million independent-living development that offers residents the nursing or personal care they need to stay in whichever apartment or cottage they choose.
“As the boomers continue to age, this is certainly a segment of the population that is very used to having choice and being able to shape where they live and what they drive and what they eat, and that should never end.”
The Groves, which opened in 2010, and new or renovated developments in Hopkinton, Needham, and Wellesley appear to reflect changes in the way the 65-plus set lives its second act.
But it’s a competitive market, and 89 percent of Americans age 50 and over say they want to stay in their homes, according to research from the AARP, an advocacy organization for the nation’s older residents. Leading the movement are membership organizations, patterned after Beacon Hill Village in Boston, that for a modest annual fee offer discounts on vetted services from handymen to home health care for seniors who want to stay put.
“People want to stay in their homes because of their families, because of their memories. It’s what they know,” said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director for Massachusetts AARP.
Even so, the senior living market appears healthy. The Boston metropolitan area ranked sixth among the 100 largest markets in the country, in terms of the number of properties under construction, in a report last year by the American Seniors Housing Association and the National Investment Center. The 15 projects being built ranged from 55-plus housing developments to nursing homes.
“As the economic climate in Massachusetts has gotten better over the last few years, we have seen more activity,” said Emily Meyer, president of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Facilities Association, based in Waltham. “We have definitely seen more interest on the part of investors in the senior housing market, and I think that will ultimately lead to more construction and more openings of residences in Massachusetts.”
Local retirement communities are trying out some new approaches in an attempt to dazzle a shifting market that is not only growing larger but also living longer.
For David Ganley, it’s all about activity and a social life. In his two years living at the Groves in Lincoln, he’s started a wine club, a poker club, and a bocce league.
“We liked the idea of a senior living facility that was starting up because it would not be filled with so-called old people,” said Ganley, a retired businessman who, at 77, moved into the complex with his wife just days after it opened.
But Ganley also needed some nursing care — just a month after moving in — so that amenity proved important early on, he said.
The Groves, co-owned by the Masonic Health System of Massachusetts, which has its own visiting nurse association, is hoping to lure retirees with the enticement of no more moves. It offers both rental and buy-in options, and residents can sign up for services as they need them.
The flexibility allows couples to continue living together even if one needs more help than the other, said McShane, vice president of corporate communications for the Masonic Health System.
Compass at Hopkinton, which is affiliated with the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, opened its renovation of an existing community in July 2010, transforming the old space into a facility offering specialized memory care for those who need assisted living.
Compass draws on cutting-edge research on nutrition, exercise, and cognitive stimulation to help mitigate the symptoms of memory loss. The idea is to bridge the gap between academic research and the professionals who provide day-to-day care for such patients, said Tadd Clelland, executive vice president and principal of Senior Living Residences, which owns and manages Compass.
Through its program, residents are connected with past memories and helped to form new ones, said Clelland.
“We have taken in residents that other assisted living and nursing homes have refused to take and made them successful,” said Clelland. “They’ve thrived in this environment. I credit our innovations for that.”
Waterstone at Wellesley and the neighboring Epoch at Waterstone opened in April, with 82 units of independent living and 52 units of assisted living, respectively. All the apartments are rentals; there is no buy-in option.
The development is near the Charles River, and has walking paths, a putting green, gardening areas, and a fire pit for outdoor gatherings. There’s also a fitness center, indoor pool, and personal training available. It’s designed to feel like a boutique hotel, said Ted Tye, managing partner for National Development, which co-owns Waterstone.
And apparently the geriatric gourmet has become much more demanding.
“We’re providing basically restaurant-quality and restaurant-style dining, including a café and outdoor tables and elegant indoor dining,” said Tye. “It’s not you come down and get served, it’s you come when you want and order off a menu. The quality expectation for the food is very, very high.’’
Then there’s North Hill in Needham, which plans to spend more than $100 million over the next three years to revamp its independent living facility, overhaul its skilled nursing care, and add its own brand of “enhanced living” through an array of extra services. Its total square footage will expand by 58 percent to accommodate new services such as memory care, new common areas, and larger apartments.
Pricing options include “Lifecare,” in which the fees would not rise for a resident needing to move to a higher level of care, except for inflation adjustments.
And with a significant nod to the stay-in-home movement, North Hill is exploring offering its services to people who don’t live there. Later this year, area residents may be able to buy membership contracts.
“Our biggest competition isn’t another community, it’s their home,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive of North Hill Communities Inc., which opened in 1984.
If North Hill offers its high-end dining services and other amenities to people who still live in their own homes, the place might just grow on them.
“Then they think, ‘This is not what I thought,’ ” said Burke.
Altogether, Burke said, the changes represent a generational shift. GIs returning from World War II bought cookie-cutter houses in “Levittowns.” His generation built McMansions.
“I’m a baby boomer. We never think we’re going to get old,” he said. “We’ll be 87 or 90 and we won’t want to live with old people.”
Of course, not every retiree can afford to spend thousands every month. For 29 percent of Massachusetts residents who are 65 and older, Social Security is their only source of income, according to data from the AARP.
“While Massachusetts does a better job than many other states in providing resources for affordable housing, it’s still difficult to keep up with demand,” said Brenda Clement, executive director of the Boston-based Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.
But if you are in the market for a senior community, David Ganley has some advice for soon-to-be retirees.
“I think the most important thing is to really evaluate the facility that you are very serious about in terms of cliques, in terms of age,” he said. “Some of these have been in existence for a long, long time. And as such there are more people that are leaving us, and that’s depressing . . . I’m one that says I want to be active until I go. I want to be able to take advantage of every minute I have here.”