When more than 45 percent of the people in your community are over the age of 60, then you are living in what social scientists call a “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community” (NORC).
Never mind that you don’t feel like you’re in a retirement community. You’re still working; you’re still active. A Naturally Occurring Retirement Community is a place where old people live. Not you.
Well, take a look in the mirror. As one senior citizen put it, “I always wake up feeling like I’m 38, and then I look in the mirror and say, ‘Who’s that old guy staring back at me?’”
That said, when should a board start paying attention to senior issues? The federal government’s Older Americans Act defines senior residences as ones where 45 percent of the heads of households are individuals generally defined as 60 and older.
“NORC Public Policy,” a 2012 study by the Jewish Federations of North America, a charitable organization, found that “in many cases, older adults cannot afford to move. But even for those who have the means to move to areas that cater to retirees, the desire to age in place near family and friends runs deep. And even though today’s baby boomers are generally wealthier than previous generations, studies show that the new generation of retirees is expected to follow the long-standing trend of staying close to home. Nearly 75 percent of all Americans 50 and older want to remain in their current homes for as long as possible, and this desire increases with age. This means that as 79 million baby boomers start to retire, the number of people aging in place will swell as never before.”
In other words, it’s time to wake up. You may not feel like your building is a NORC, but you should start preparing for the coming transition.
The Winds of Change
First, be sanguine. This happens to everyone. “All of us are entering this territory, as our residents move from healthy, robust senior citizens to those who are more frail,” says Allison Day, board president of a 31-unit co-op in Brooklyn. “Yes, we’re here to protect our buildings’ fiduciary interests, but we’re also a community. What’s the right thing to do? I think a lot of us need further guidance and discussion.”
“Our building is growing into a senior-citizens home,” says a board member at a mid-size co-op, who requested anonymity out of concern for stigmatizing his building. “There wasn’t an ‘a-ha’ moment,” he says. “You notice during the day – I’m semi-retired now, so I’m around a little bit more – that some older people go to Florida for the winter,” leaving their apartments unoccupied, “or who don’t go to Florida and hang around with the doorman, the porter and the super. It wasn’t really a shock, just being observant. I don’t think a lot of [the building’s shareholders] recognize it – people have their lives and work long hours. You do see people who are going through hip replacements, knee replacements – boomers, really, like me. You see it and you say, ‘Well, how can we help?’”
Indeed, says Kathryn Haslanger, CEO of the Jewish Association Serving the Aging, helping senior residents “offers significant support to building management and board members. A senior program may help prevent loss of unit income, legal fees related to eviction proceedings, and a decrease of property values. It will reduce the burden on management staff and other building residents.”
New York City and New York State each have a complicated formula for designating residential complexes as formal NORCs that receive funding and support for programs. (There are 29 in the state, all but two of them in city.) A proactive board can start making things easier for seniors – which has the added benefit of aiding your building’s disabled residents. It’s not a zero-sum game: you can have a playground for young families’ kids and a social room for seniors.
But even if you’re not an official NORC, you can still find ways to keep the oldest seniors safe and engaged in the community. Here are some tips:
Carpets. Slip-and-fall accidents are among the most dangerous, even for robust 60-year-olds, and slip-and-fall lawsuits are among the most common that boards face. They don’t just occur on the ice, either. “Area rugs are the worst things for a senior, because they slip on them or trip over them,” says Bonnie Honya, a board member at Queens’ Clearview Gardens, a co-op with 1,788 garden apartments. So avoid plush carpets and heavy carpet-padding in your common areas. Use feathered floor coverings, meaning ones that go from a higher surface to a lower surface gradually with a rubber border. And prevent a carpet, mat, or runner from curling by taping it down with special carpet tape (and not regular double-stick tape, which leaves a sticky residue on the floor).
Ramps. Although many younger residents may resent a ramp because it spells wheelchairs and old age, many boards get requests for ramps. Buildings with front-door steps can install a ramp for those using wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. It’s a common misconception that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the common areas of residential co-ops and condos. It does not – unless there’s a place of public accommodation, such as a doctor’s office, accessible through the lobby. The act applies to your retail spaces, of course. There’s a New York City statute (Local Law 58) that applies during certain renovations, plus city and state human-rights laws that in one case forced Co-op City in the Bronx to install automatic front doors for residents in wheelchairs. You can get ahead of all that by installing a code-compliant ramp proactively, integrating it with the building design and installing good lighting, a canopy, and other features.
Strobe lights. Many people, not just the elderly, suffer from hearing loss, so it’s become increasingly common for buildings to install strobe-light fire alarms in addition to standard aural alarms. Boards also can let seniors and their families know about medical alert necklaces and bracelets, such as those from Life Alert, Mindme, or Safe Link, and even personal GPS trackers from companies like PocketFinder and GPS Shoe.
Gas shutoffs. A major concern, according to Day, the Brooklyn board president, “is seniors leaving the gas on, which is extremely frightening to all of us, especially given recent [gas explosions] in the city.” In response to an incident with one resident that required Con Ed intervention, Day’s co-op board turned to a little-known technology: electronic automatic shutoffs that can protect buildings from anyone who leaves a stove unattended.
“Because this is a rent-controlled tenant, we are legally obligated to provide a stove if they request one,” says Day. After some discussion, the board purchased both a stove and an electronic device positioned above the stove, basically a motion sensor. If the stove is on and there isn’t motion in the kitchen within a prescribed amount of time, it will turn the stove off.
Devices such as the Absolute Automation’s CookStop Automatic Stove Shut Off ($359) or iGuard’s iGuardStove ($599) feature just such an adjustable motion sensor that can turn off a stove if it detects no one in the cooking area, with other features including e-mail/text notifications when a stove is in use. A board can’t mandate such a device for shareholders/unit-owners, though any board, family-member, or concerned neighbor seeing potential stove-related danger can seek court intervention through New York State’s Kendra’s Law, which provides for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment.
Community room. Co-ops and condos with community rooms have a prime location to set up volunteer-led social clubs, low-impact exercise sessions, and other activities that can help relieve the isolation that comes with age. Such rooms are usually found in larger complexes like the Mutual Redevelopment Houses co-op, a.k.a. Penn South, the 2,820-apartment limited-equity co-op in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Still, boards in smaller buildings may want to look into converting unused basement spaces or portions of health clubs into community rooms.
For instance, Clearview Gardens has a book club that meets once a week in the community room, according to board member Honya. She is also one of three board members running a separate, roughly 20-year-old nonprofit corporation, the Clearview Assistance Program, which helps the co-op’s seniors in myriad ways. “We have a men’s group that meets on Tuesdays,” she says, “and a women’s group on Friday mornings – about 30 women come to that. We serve bagels and coffee and a social worker runs the group. It really works.”
Socialization is key, says Albert De Leon, former board president of 140 Eighth Avenue, a two-building, six-story co-op in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park neighborhood. “There are things that can be done” to intermingle generations and break up seniors’ potential isolation. “We have a holiday party and stoop sales” that help bring residents together,” De Leon says. One big draw has been “a Halloween pumpkin-carving contest. That was huge – the kids loved it, and the adults loved it because there was hot toddy to go with it. It’s always nice seeing kids happy, and they got their parents and grandparents involved.”
One way to entice attendance, he adds, is to note that, “if nothing else, it’s a great networking opportunity – you find out what people do, they find out what you do, who you know, who they know. I’ve referred our contractor to at least six people in this co-op, and they love this guy. Just be open to new ideas and be willing to share.”