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Active adult communities encourage lifelong learning

This is an excerpt from Leisure and Aging by Heather Gibson & Jerome Singleton.

Active Adult Communities

Want to live in a college setting but without the assignments and pressure related to term papers and exams? Where you could join the organizations you wanted, work out at the full-function recreation center, swim at the pool, and even take classes that interested you but without the pressure of tests and grades? Where you would be around people who shared your interests and where there were clubs based on these interests? This section describes such a place—an active adult community. What's the catch? You have to meet a certain age requirement, which often is 50 or 55 but can be as low as 45. Although the age requirements vary, most of these communities require at least one person living in the household to be a certain age or older. In 2007, about 3% of people living in households with at least one member aged 55 years or older lived in this type of community (National Association of Home Builders & MetLife Mature Market Institute, 2009).

The development of age-restricted communities, the forerunner of active adult communities, can be traced back to the 1950s, when a developer named Del Webb created Youngtown, a new town near Phoenix, Arizona. Very little was specifically active about this first community, which offered low-cost housing and no extra amenities and was restricted to people at least 55 or older. However, by 1960, Webb decided to extend this concept to a more affluent group of older adults who were at least 50 years old (Sun City Visitors Center, 2010).

Del Webb's second planned community, Sun City, was located beside Youngtown. The concept was to offer affordable housing in a community that also provided all the amenities that people could hope for in their retirement years, including golf courses, community centers, cultural events, shopping, multiple sporting venues, swimming pools, walking and biking trails, and clubs aimed at every possible interest. The mild winters of southern Arizona were an important selling point since the initial market for this retirement community was older adults residing in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States. The concept of an active adult community was an immediate hit, with nearly 100,000 people visiting the community on opening day and over 200 homes sold during the opening weekend (Sun City Visitors Center, 2010). Within two months, Sun City became the fastest growing town in Arizona (Rubiano & Chan, 2010).

In Southern California, the planned retirement community of Leisure World, another prototype of the active adult community, was also underway. Although the plan to build the community began in 1960, as did Sun City, the first unit in Leisure World was not sold until 1962. Roy Cortese, the builder of Leisure World, used research data from the gerontology program at the University of Southern California to design the community (Rubiano & Chan, 2010). Although Leisure World was much smaller in concept than Sun City, the formula was the same—the project included affordable housing, recreation, and social activities. One major difference was the inclusion of medical and health facilities in Leisure World, which would come later to Sun City (Baker, 2009). The success of both Leisure World and Sun City confirmed the market for older adults wanting to live in a warm climate in an age-restricted environment that provided for all their possible leisure needs. Active adult communities are found in every state, but they are most popular in Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and California.

These types of communities are becoming more common around the world. During the first half of 2010, visitors came to Sun City from Germany, Britain, Italy, Denmark, China, and South Korea to study this type of community. Why the interest? An urban planner from the Netherlands, who has visited Sun City several times, indicated that he liked the recreation activities and hobby clubs. According to the planner, “What we want to do, as in Sun City, is have more vitality, more activity, more than what we are used to in our country. Our country is aging heavily. And seniors want to be respected as persons who can be a part of society, can be worthwhile in society” (Rubiano & Chan, 2010).

Although these early prototypes of planned communities were designed to sell houses, they ultimately encouraged healthy aging as well. Exercise and physical activity have been documented as a key to healthy aging (Patterson, Govindasamy, Vidmar, Cunningham, & Koval, 2004; Petrossi, 2005), and active adult communities have state-of-the-art facilities for activity geared toward their residents. For example, most include special flooring for aerobics and dance, fully outfitted exercise equipment rooms, and classes from aerobics to tai chi and yoga. Before signing up to use the wellness center in Sun City Grand, people are given a complete physical by Sun Health, Inc., a foundation located in Maricopa County, Arizona, that promotes healthy living, research, and health care. They then work with a trainer to design an exercise program based on their physical condition. Some of the exercise equipment even records the progress of those working out.

We do not exercise in a vacuum, and we are encouraged to exercise when we see others exercising who look like us. Research supports the notion that seeing others similar to ourselves engage in exercise makes it more likely we will engage in similar behavior (King et al., 2000). In an active adult community, instead of 80-year-olds working out at the gym with a group one-fourth their age, they are working out with others similar in age. And what about the 80-year-old who has never worked out who moves into an active adult community? Is it too late to begin? The research indicates it is never too late to start reaping the positive health benefits associated with exercise (Gregg et al., 2003).

Walking is the number one exercise for older adults for many reasons; it is easy, inexpensive, and can be done by people with varying levels of fitness (Henderson & Ainsworth, 2000; Lockett, Willis, & Edwards, 2005; Singh, 1996). In general, active adult communities encourage walking and biking. The Villages in Florida ( is typical in its efforts to encourage walking and biking by connecting all parts of the community with well-designed trails, sidewalks, and paths that lead to interesting destinations and things to do.

In addition to exercise facilities, exercise classes, and walking and biking trails, these communities provide golf courses, tennis courts, lawn bowling, bocce ball, archery, volleyball, pickleball courts, racquetball courts, and other opportunities to continue to play sports or learn new ones. Pickleball, named after the inventor's dog, is played on a court about a third of the size of a regular tennis court. It is one of the fastest growing sports among older adults, although it is fun for any age, and it provides a great workout.

Nearly all research paints a picture of people disengaging from physical activity as they age (CDC, 2003; DHHS, 1996); however, a study of Sun City residents indicated that this does not have to be the case (Gitelson & Ho, 2008). The study compared baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and non boomers (born before 1946) and asked if they currently participated in sport. The findings indicated that nearly half of all boomers and non boomers participated in at least one sport. Nearly 8 out of 10 participated in physical activity each day, and 90% used a recreation center on a regular basis. Nearly a quarter of boomers and one-fifth of non boomers performed strength training each day. Sounds like an active group, especially when you consider that nearly 60% of all older Americans were not meeting the U.S. Surgeon General's minimum recommendations for physical activity in 2005 (DHHS, 2000).

Planned communities also encourage healthy aging by facilitating engagement with others and in various activities. Clubs, which proliferate in active adult communities, provide opportunities to meet this need. Most clubs are organized around special interests, such as arts, card or board games, or hobbies. In nearly all cases, volunteers are in charge. For example, there are more than 120 clubs in Sun City West. There are 6 dance clubs ranging from country and western to ballroom dancing, 15 sport clubs, and over 30 clubs devoted to various arts, hobbies, and crafts. Interested in woodworking, quilting, lapidary, or pottery? You will find state-of-the-art facilities and willing teachers if you want to learn new skills or engage in a new hobby. There is a club for people with arthritis wishing to exercise, an investment club, a model-railroad club, language clubs, reading clubs, and a theater group. And if you cannot find a club to meet your interests, you can organize it yourself. The nice thing about these clubs is the willingness of members to teach new members how to do the activity. The clubs provide a ready-made network to engage socially with others while having fun. Research has indicated that clubs are a good means of increasing social networking, which is important for health (Waldron, Gitelson, Kelly, & Regalado, 2005).

Finally, active aging communities encourage what has become known as lifelong learning. The community of Sun City Grand has even added a building dedicated to learning opportunities. Through a partnership with Arizona State University, a wide variety of classes are offered. Though university faculty teach a few of these courses, community residents teach the majority. Learning new activities and challenging oneself intellectually has been linked to lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (Miller, 2009). The success of this learning center has been duplicated in other active adult communities such as The Villages in Florida, where it is featured on the home page of its website.

The concept of relocating to an active adult community in our later years provides an alternative to living in place, the idea that we will remain in our homes long after our children have grown and we have retired. It also provides an alternative to the idea of mixed communities in terms of age. It is not for everyone, however; each year, 5% to 10% of residents living in age-restricted communities move back to their former hometowns to be near friends and family (Gitelson & Ho, 2008).

Read more from Leisure and Aging by Heather Gibson and Jerome Singleton.

More Excerpts From Leisure and Aging