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Retirees pass up Leisure World for the real world

My favorite aunt lives in Columbia Heights. She is retired, if retirement means collecting antiques to sell and working at a bank just to meet people. She and my uncle, who is officially retired, circumnavigate the District by foot and Metro, seeing friends, running errands, and simply enjoying the city. My mother, in her work appraising short-sale houses, recently discovered how cheap it is to buy a place in Leisure World, the city-sized, gated retirement community at Georgia and Norbeck. And she's taken it upon herself to convince her sister and brother-in-law that they should finally move to the suburbs.

Convinced that somehow I'd talk them out of it, my mother drove me around Leisure World to stop me from meddling in her meddling. "Look," she said, "it's so pretty! They can walk around." (We see a guy in a golf cart, a woman watering her lawn, but no one walking.) "But there aren't any sidewalks," I replied. "How will they get to the grocery store?" "They can drive there," my mother said.

Old people are cool now. (My aunt is not quite old, but still cool.) They play Nintendo Wii and write blogs and laugh at the line of Buicks snaking from Riderwood Village to the McDonald's across Cherry Hill Road, all with their blinkers going. Pretty soon most retirement homes will look like my freshman-year dorm but with an earlier bedtime. And as the baby boomers get older, I seriously wonder if places like Leisure World or Riderwood will stay relevant.

Earlier generations of seniors loved these places because they were safe, self-contained, and filled with people like them. Leisure World has three gated entrances, two golf courses and a shopping center. Riderwood's nineteen apartment buildings and "Town Center" clubhouse are connected by skybridges, relieving their occupants of even having to go outside. If you can drive, these places are fine. But if you can't or don't want to drive, you're basically screwed. My aunt hasn't driven in fifteen years. Why would she and my uncle move from Metro-accessible Columbia Heights to a cul-de-sac three miles north of Glenmont? It's not like they've got kids and are worrying about schools and bedrooms.

There's nothing wrong with retirement homes. Why shouldn't I want to hang out with people who remember the same old songs I do and also have plenty of time to kill? But when those retirement homes morph into retirement compounds, where I've got a security guard keeping the rest of the world at bay, I'm not as enthused. Nor are people who actually are retired. Today's seniors are "aging in place," hiring local builders to retrofit their old homes to make them safe for years to come. Or they're banding together with fellow retirees to form "naturally occurring retirement communities," as one Fairfax County neighborhood is doing.

Or they're tackling the physical form of the neighborhood itself, bringing a little piece of the city to the suburbs where they raised families decades before. Outside of Atlanta, Fayetteville and Mableton are both turning their strip-malls into retiree-friendly town centers, building sidewalks, mixing uses, and increasing density so that everything is within walking distance. The end result won't be too different than what we already have here in Downtown Silver Spring or Rockville Town Square. But bringing retirees into the discussion recognizes that they stand to benefit from good urbanism as well, whether it's freedom from driving or from budget pressures:

"Space is something we thought we had to have" in the suburbs, says Ms. Trammell, age 74. "But we can't afford that today—time-wise or money-wise. Putting a single house on a one-acre lot means more street in front of that house, longer electric and gas lines to run to the house, more yard and shrubs to cut, and a bigger property-tax bill for the owners. We're all tired of that. I know I am."
The city, it seems, is where the young and old meet. Sort of. There are large groups of both who want walkable, accessible, sociable places, but I don't know if how many seniors would move to Adams Morgan, as walkable, accessible and sociable it is. But they're already moving to neighborhoods in the District and throughout the region that provide some form of urban life. These are places that provide the low-maintenance lifestyle retirees want and need with the independence that communities like Leisure World and Riderwood can't offer.

It's not surprising that baby boomers are turning away from gated retirement complexes to real neighborhoods. After all, they're more likely than I am to remember a time when people weren't stuck in their cars. And it allows them to live out retirement with the same vitality they've always enjoyed. As for my aunt and uncle, they still haven't moved to Leisure World. "Why would I want to live out there?" She keeps asking. "The houses are nice, but we don't need all that space."

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Seniors already live in the apartment buildings and houses in Adams Morgan. I expect I'll be a "senior" too. It's just living there since you were young and then, know getting old. There.

If you are talking about retirement "communities," that's a different matter. Seniors don't, as a rule, go out too much at night. Crime would be the number one detriment to moving a retirement house there. But if they are not going to go out at night, that cuts down on a lot of potential crime. But crime happens in the daytime too, less - but still.

I think it is an intriguing idea. There are retirement communities in Georgetown.

Senior services provided by the DC government need to be brought into the discussion (as in keeping them, and expanding them).

by Jazzy on Oct 7, 2009 10:42 am • linkreport

I've got some family friends living in a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) in upstate NY. It's close to everything they need, and they still get to live in a single family home. I think there are 14 NORCs that have support services funded by the state at the moment. It's a much better alternative in my eyes. At least until you can move back in with your kids :P

by Shawn on Oct 7, 2009 11:03 am • linkreport

My dream: AARP lobbying for Smart Growth - then we'll see some serious progress.

by Chris S on Oct 7, 2009 11:10 am • linkreport

" Why would she and my uncle move from Metro-accessible Columbia Heights to a cul-de-sac three miles north of Glenmont? "

Um, because Metro-accessible Columbia Heights has people getting shot in broad daylight outside of Five Guys and knifed on the Metro escalator?

I don't disagree with your distaste for car-only suburbs, but in my dotage I'd like to have a walkable community that's progressed a little bit more past ghetto.

by mccxxiii on Oct 7, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

Actually, AARP already does work on Smart Growth. They have released several reports on aging in place and complete streets, such as "A Report to the Nation on Livable Communities." I met an AARP person who works on this issue at a climate change event and was pleasantly surprised. They are more advanced than you might think!

by Erica on Oct 7, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

Yes, Columbia Heights, so "ghetto". Good lord. You haven't spent much time in the eastern half of the city, have you?

by Nate on Oct 7, 2009 12:23 pm • linkreport

Jeez, the old folks in my condo already try to pass rules that discriminate against younger people and have referred to the condo as a place for senior citizens. All over whether or not a 3 year old should be allowed to walk on the grass. And apparently it's okay to leave a wheelchair in the lobby but not a stroller. Please don't inform them of this NORC idea.

by rdhd on Oct 7, 2009 12:35 pm • linkreport

I really enjoyed reading this post, for its style as well as its content. We would do well to think about how many of our urban improvement issues through the lens of senior citizens. I know in terms of voting patterns seniors in DC are more engaged than any other group. (Just go to a Ward 4 community meeting!)

I wouldn't use mccxxiii's tone or language, but I do wonder about seniors and crime. Are they more vulnerable because they are less physically able to protect themselves on the street? As a healthy fit man, I think I'm about as vulnerable as a senior against someone with a weapon, so nope, no special concern there.

Noise is not just a senior citizen thing. People who have to wake up and get kids ready for school and themselves ready for work need quiet at night as much more more than retirees. In fact, retired people may be home more often (at least during the day), so they put more eyes on the street.

So, I'm thinking that senior-citizen focused development planning for the city is pretty smart and reasonable. Good luck convicing your mom to do more listening and less talking when meddling in your CH aunt/uncle's lifestyle choices!

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 7, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Jazzy, I see you have posted on this issue, but we have been trying to contact you regarding a post you made a month ago about the accident where the jogger was hit by the bus at Dupont Circle. We represent the jogger, and in your post, you mentioned you knew someone who had seen the accident. We are looking for witnesses, so would appreciate it if you would please call me or ask the witness to call me at 301-229-7350. Thank you. Susan Gail

by Susan Gail on Oct 7, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport

Connecticut Ave north of Van Ness isn't as gray as it used to be, but it's still pretty much a NORC. I wouldn't suggest it as a model though.

by цarьchitect on Oct 7, 2009 2:35 pm • linkreport

The facts don't support your arguments. The fastest growing segment of new home construction, pre- and post-housing bust, is "55 and older" communities. Many have waiting lists, some savvy retirees are even able to flip their homes before they are built.

The few anecdotes of empty nesters moving back into the city and going to coffee shops and poetry readings are just that, anecdotes.

by metronic on Oct 7, 2009 3:20 pm • linkreport

The fastest growing segment of new home construction, pre- and post-housing bust, is "55 and older" communities

That's because they are the fastest grown segment of the population. I'm making up numbers, but if 80% of the 55+ population used to move into retirement communities and now it is 70%, the raw demand for retirement communities might be increasing while the proportional interest is decreasing. That still means quite a large increase in urban retirement living.

This is definitely partially an effect of the baby-boom generation. What will happen to all the infrastructure for retirees once they proportions shift again? I'm also very curious what will happen to places like Florida which depend on retirees moving there. Perhaps my 30-something friends are a biased sample, but while some of our parents and grandparents moved to a retirement state, we have no interest in that. There may be some interesting population shifts in the next few decades.

by dd on Oct 7, 2009 4:43 pm • linkreport

NORCs have been around for decades...long before anyone noticed them. They usually are in inner ring suburbs or near middle class urban shopping districts. Real estate speculation put a dent in Connecticut Ave., and places where rentals are common are vulnerable to landlords feeling they don't make enough off long-term tenants. Some seniors have always lived in the city, esp. the single or childless. Others are happy to chuck the house after the kids are grown and live in the city.

I suspect that many people will have fewer choices when they retire in the future. the end of traditional pension plans and vulnerability to the stock marker will change retirement for the middle class.

by Rich on Oct 7, 2009 8:40 pm • linkreport

we don't need all that space

This is the key phrase. Americans live way larger than anybody else around the world. Why exactly? "Because I need the space". Really, what for? "Beuh,..."

Americans like things big. Homes, yards, cars, roads, everything. That's not bad in itself. But don't complain about the negative sides that come with the scale....

by Jasper on Oct 7, 2009 9:23 pm • linkreport

Fact is, more and more people are moving to Riderwood to live life to the fullest. I want to invite you to visit and see first-hand how seniors at this campus are adding more living to their life. Also, please bring along your favorite aunt.

People who live at Riderwood meet new friends, experience new things, and enjoy more time to pursure their passions.

I hope you can visit.

by Dan Dunne on Oct 8, 2009 11:00 am • linkreport

@rdhd Got you beat there - the seniors in my co-op keep trying to get preferential pricing on 'extras' like the fitness center in our building, even though we're all 'equal members' in the cooperative. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't.

by Moose on Oct 8, 2009 12:05 pm • linkreport

Leisure world has no provision for aging in place. When you get too old to drive you are plumb out of luck. My Mom found that the transportation leisure world management provides is a little dicey. You can't depend on being picked up from appointments. In a city at least there are Mom and pop stores, metro and places you can get to on foot.

by Liz on Oct 8, 2009 12:47 pm • linkreport

My dad is 88, was born and raised and still lives here in DC, walks every day, has a bus stop right outside the front door of the house he shares with my sister,they have a great garden and grow killer tomatos , a drug store is across the street, a Metro station 3 blocks in either direction, many , many friends all over,two restaurants with a bar are next door, a liquor store is 5 blocks away, and everything is easy for him. He also does not drive, and has not for over 25 years.

You do not need a car in the city- and it is also not at all a bad place for seniors to live.

by w on Oct 8, 2009 1:05 pm • linkreport

I don't know where Dan Reed got the idea that there aren't any sidewalks in Leisure World. My mother lives there and just last week I walked from her condo to the grocery store on the perfectly nice sidewalks.

by Mike on Oct 12, 2009 9:47 am • linkreport

Leisure World is not urban, but it does have internal buses and is pretty well served by WMATA and Ride-On buses.
Also, I can easily walk or take a Leisure World bus to the grocery store.

by Jane Greene on Dec 26, 2014 6:58 pm • linkreport

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