Retirement communities get caught between generations

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press
Published February 27, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - For most of the past 37 years, the dinner dress code was coats and ties for men, skirts or other "appropriate attire" for women at the Sequoias, a high-rise retirement community. But the newer, younger residents lobbied successfully for more casual dining.

More than two years later, some of the old-timers are still grumbling.

"There is a definite generation gap between the ones who have lived here 20 years" and more recent arrivals, said Hilde Orloff, 82.

At retirement communities around the country, a rift has opened up between the 90-year-olds and residents a generation younger - between people who came of age during the Depression and those who reached adulthood amid postwar prosperity.

They are clashing over such things as dress codes, food, higher monthly fees to pay for recently added weight rooms, and computer-ready apartments demanded by the younger, more active set.

Maria Dwight, a Santa Monica, Calif., consultant who helps plan and market senior housing, said older residents do not want to pay for perks they won't use.

"They don't see the facilities with fresh eyes," she said. " 'So the carpet is a little worn, so what?' they think. They are living there; they are comfortable."

The intergenerational tension is expected to mount as millions of baby boomers - expected to be healthier and more active than the generation that came before them - move into retirement communities or facilities.

By 2030, one in five Americans is expected to be at least 65 years old.

The boomer dilemma

"This creates a real dilemma for older retirement communities," Dwight said, "because they tend to have small dwelling units and huge (communal) dining rooms that aren't attractive to younger . . . people, who want (their retirement facility to have) weight rooms, casual dining, lap pools, a home office and room for the grandchildren to come visit."

But even small switches, such as replacing a calisthenics class with Pilates, can be disconcerting to some older people.

At Oakmont Village, a 3,000-home neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif., it was the cost of spiffing up the gym that raised many residents' blood pressure. At the San Francisco Towers, a luxury retirement community, there was some tension when the "ladies' tea room" was transformed into a casual cafe.

This is the sort of quandary facing Northern California Presbyterian Homes and Services, which owns the Sequoias and six other retirement communities.

Chief executive Barbara Hood said this month that upgrading aging facilities is critical to nonprofit organizations, such as those her agency operates, as more private developers get into the increasingly lucrative seniors housing market.

The Sequoias, whose 333 residents range in age from 69 to 103, added a buffet and casual-dress seating, though it also kept sit-down table service and the dress-up rule for those who preferred it.

A cafe in which people can get an espresso and pastry is also planned. And an outdoor garden for meditating and practicing tai chi was added.

"It's their home, so of course they are going to be concerned," Hood said of the grumbling. But "we have to make sure we are keeping our commitments to current residents and attracting the next (generation) of seniors."

Though there has been a lot of talk about what the baby boom generation will want when it retires, the changes under way have largely been targeted at their predecessors, the so-called Silent Generation born between 1925 and 1942. The boomers tend to be wealthier and more outspoken than the earlier generation, said Anne Burns Johnson, president of Aging Services of California.

Easing into change

Most senior citizens tend to adapt if the changes are handled with sensitivity, said Dee Ann Campbell, vice president of the Episcopal Homes Foundation, which operates the San Francisco Towers.

"The people who have been there a while and only did water aerobics or chair yoga will say, 'I didn't think I would like line dancing, but it's really fun,' " she said.

Over at the Sequoias, some still gripe about how things haven't been the same since the dining room relaxed the dress code. But some have embraced the buffet.

"We have grandchildren coming in who wear nothing but jeans," Orloff said, "but by and large the nasty looks have disappeared - sort of."