What’s in a name? When it comes to senior living communities – plenty.

BrooksideFor those of us “of a certain age,” it seems hard to believe that within five years, most of the Baby Boomer generation will be of retirement age.

… This also means that millions of people will be thinking about downsizing, right-sizing, or whatever the applicable term may be.

All sorts of considerations come into play when making such a decision; climate, social, cultural and recreation opportunities, plus proximity to relatives are some of the most common.

But when the dust settles, most people will actually end up “aging in place.”

That’s one key finding from a recent survey of ~4,000 American Baby Boomer households that was conducted by the Demand Institute Housing & Community.

Not only do nearly two-thirds of the respondents plan to stay in their current homes, the majority of them feel that their homes are well-suited for aging – even if they’re multi-story, don’t offer accessibility features, or aren’t particularly low-maintenance structures.

But the survey suggests another interesting dynamic that may also be at work:  the notion that senior living communities are primarily places for people who have serious health issues or who can’t take care of themselves on their own.

Let’s face it.  Baby Boomers don’t consider themselves part of that cohort at all, which they equate with people who are substantially more elderly than themselves.

When you think about it, so many of the terms used to describe senior living facilities convey exactly the wrong thing to Baby Boomers.  The names may well be accurate descriptions of the properties in question, but they fairly scream “geriatrics.”


I’ve run across quite a few descriptors.  A good number of them reside in the same wheelhouse – which is to say, distinctly unattractive.  Meanwhile, other alternative names are often too narrowly descriptive as well, because one important aspect of senior living is to access to continuing care if and when that becomes necessary.

Either way, those charged with marketing these properties clearly prefer the word “community” over the word “center” or “home.”  But you can be the judge of how successful these names really are:

  • 55+ communities
  • Active adult communities
  • Age-restricted communities
  • Continuing care retirement communities
  • Elder cohousing communities
  • Independent living communities
  • Leisure communities
  • Mature living communities
  • Senior housing communities
  • Senior living communities

The bottom line on this is pretty fundamental:  Few people – regardless of how old they are – wish to be reminded of the limitations of life on a downward curve.  It’s just not compatible with the positive attributes that are so much a part of human nature.  Anything we can do to avoid being reminded of our mortality, we’ll do.

Obviously, that reluctance to face the reality of aging is of concern to property developers in the housing industry as well.  One of the actions coming out of field research such as the Diamond study is a new initiative to establish an alternative “umbrella descriptor” that works across the entire spectrum of senior living facilities.

It will be interesting to see where that exercise will end up.  As for me, I’m guessing it’ll still telegraph “geriatric.”  But perhaps we’ll end up being surprised.

It’s Official: Older Cities Take a Beating in the Latest U.S. Census

Abandoned housing stock in Flint, MI
2009 street scene in Flint, Michigan.

While there’s been evidence of significant shifts in U.S. population growth over the past decade, the decennial census performed earlier this year gives us an opportunity to learn precisely what’s been happening and end some of the “speculation.”

And now, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its preliminary population reports, we’re seeing how this has played out in cities across the country. While it’s true that the American population has grown pretty steadily at about 2.5 million people per year, some areas have grown much faster than others as a result of being better positioned through the education of their workforce and/or their business- and technology-friendly environments.

Alas, other areas haven’t merely stagnated, but actually lost residents because of failing industries and unattractive business climates, sparking net out-migration of their residents.

Interestingly, many of the cities in the “industrial heartland” of America have managed to stay on the positive side of population growth – even if just barely. But some cities have experienced such hardship that their populations have dropped dramatically in the past decade.

New Orleans tops the list … and who’s surprised about that? After all, Hurricane Katrina effectively robbed the city of one-third of its residents – with most of them electing not to return after establishing new livelihoods in Houston, Shreveport, and other localities further yon.

But New Orleans surely represents a “special case” if ever there was one. Other cities have suffered greatly due to their dependence on industries that took a beating over the past decade. And really, any city with a major focus on traditional manufacturing saw thousands of jobs disappear.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report on the nation’s largest cities — ones with 100,000+ population — the seven experiencing the biggest percentage declines in population over the past decade are:

1. New Orleans, LA – Dropped by ~129,000 to ~355,000 (-27%)
2. Flint, MI – Declined by ~13,000 to ~112,000 (-11%)
3. Cleveland, OH – Fell by ~45,000 to ~431,000 (-10%)
4. Buffalo, NY – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~270,000 (-8%)
5. Dayton, OH – Declined by ~12,000 to ~154,000 (-7%)
6. Pittsburgh, PA – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~312,000 (-7%)
7. Rochester, NY – Declined by ~12,000 to ~207,000 (-6%)

[I was a bit surprised to see Detroit missing from this list. After all, it’s the poster child for urban decay and depopulation. But Detroit’s population percentage decline was actually smaller than the cities above, and it remains the nation’s 11th largest city. However, the 2010 census will likely show that its population has fallen below 800,000 for the first time in nearly a century – and the figure is even more startling when you realize the city’s population was nearly 2 million as late as the 1950 census.]

Unfortunately, the negative implication of population declines in these proud American cities go far beyond the loss of social prestige and political clout.

Once decline sets in, it can go on for years. The loss of residents contributes to a drop in tax receipts and the subsequent curtailing of social services ranging from police and sanitation to schools and recreation. Home vacancy rates say volumes about the precarious position in which the cities above find themselves – they’re above 15% in every single case (and sometimes dramatically higher).

Confronted with such a reality, too often the result is more people fleeing the urban core, creating a continuing downward spiral that seemingly has no bottom. Representative examples of where this sorry state of affairs can end up can be found in two smaller but particularly grim urban communities: Camden, NJ and Chester, PA.

From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to accept these population reports … and it seems like people should step in and do something – anything – to arrest the decline.

And in the abstract, it’s only natural to feel that this is what should happen. But in the “real world,” who are going to be the ones to step up to the plate and expose themselves (and their families) to the harsh reality of urban pioneering?

Would I do it? Would you?

For most of us, the answer to that question falls into the “life’s too short” category.

The Residential Real Estate Market: Still in the Dumper

Home Foreclosures
U.S. home foreclosures set a record in 2009 ... and are on their way to being even higher in 2010.
When it comes to the U.S. residential real estate market, the latest statistics and forecasts don’t bode well at all for the industry. Recently released stats on foreclosure rates reveal that 2009 was the worst year on record. And unfortunately, 2010 is looking like it’ll shatter the record yet again.

According to RealtyTrac, a firm that monitors real estate and foreclosure data, more than 2.8 million properties in America received a foreclosure notice during the past year. That’s 21% more than in 2008 and a whopping 120% higher than what was reported in 2007.

Moreover, one in every 45 households received at least one filing last year – nearly four times higher than 2006. These ugly numbers were racked up in spite of robust foreclosure prevention programs, without which the figures doubtless would have been significantly higher.

Unfortunately, the scenario doesn’t appear any better for 2010. Unless and until lenders are able to get principal balance reductions, high default rates are going to continue. In fact, RealtyTrac projects that a new record of 3 million or more properties will get a filing this year.

Where are we seeing the biggest problems? Well … in Michigan, to nobody’s surprise. But also in Nevada, Arizona and Florida. Until recently, those were states blessed with dramatic – even outsized – population and job growth, along with commensurately growing political power.

But as outlined in a recent article by Michael Barone, in an interesting twist of fate, these states are now experiencing net out-migration, while erstwhile laggard states in the Northeast and Midwest are now showing net in-migration.

It’ll likely take years to sort out the scrambled residential real estate market we have today – a situation sparked by a housing crisis for which many in government and the private sector are responsible … but which has also caught far too many innocent people in its clutches. Hopefully, the lessons learned will not be soon forgotten.