Naturally Occurring Communities for Older People

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As the popularity for people wanting to age in place and in their familiar communities has increased, many communities have been taking on new characteristics. They have organized in various ways to meet the changed needs of the aging residents. These communities differ from assisted living, which is a form of group living created to provide personal care and other help.

They are also not cohousing arrangements, which are newly designed developments. Unrelated people who choose to live together as they age do form their own small community, but that option is not the same as aging in place.

The most common forms of special communities are naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) and Villages. They are different approaches to a common desire to age not only in one's own home but also in one's community. NORCs have a longer history than Villages, but both models are evolving.

Many people who are aging in place live near others at the same stage of life. They may have bought their homes in the suburbs when they were starting out as young families, or they may have taken advantage of union- or government-supported apartment housing and never left. These communities are called naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs. No one planned these communities. The residents created them simply by aging in place.

Defining a NORC

The United Hospital Fund's Aging in Place Initiative describes a NORC as “a community that was not originally built for seniors, but that now has a significant proportion of older residents.”

Just what that proportion is varies by locality, but generally to be considered a NORC for government or philanthropic funding, a community must have at least 40 percent of its households headed by someone 60 years or older. There may be a minimum requirement of 200 people in that category.

The demographic designation is only a start. To be able to serve residents, the NORC has to offer services through a NORC program. Although the first NORC, established in 1986, was in a moderate-income housing complex in New York City, NORCs are now found in suburbs, rural areas, and small towns. Following are the two main types of NORCs:

  • Housing-based NORCs: Also called a classic, closed, or vertical NORC, these are located in a single age-integrated apartment building, a housing complex with multiple buildings under common management, or an area where a number of apartment buildings are clustered together.

  • Neighborhood-based NORCs: Also known as open or horizontal NORCs, these are typically one- and two-family homes in age-integrated neighborhoods.

NORC programs and what they offer

NORC programs make the difference between a demographic description and an innovative model of aging in place. NORC programs coordinate a broad range of social and medical services to support the residents in the NORC designated area.

They build on the strengths of a multidisciplinary team of social-service and healthcare providers, housing managers or representatives of neighborhood associations, and community residents, especially older adults. They may be affiliated with healthcare organizations in the community. NORCs do not charge for services and are funded by a mix of government funding and charitable grants.

The social service, healthcare, and housing partners such as an apartment complex management agree to organize and develop a mix of on-site services and programs that respond to the residents’ changing needs and promote community change in support of successful aging.

The NORC philosophy builds on involving residents in their own healthcare and engaging them in community resources so that they remain active and productive. Some of the on-site services that NORC programs provide include

  • Social work and case-management services

  • Nursing services, especially for adults managing chronic conditions

  • Educational and recreational activities

  • Health prevention and education activities

  • Opportunities for community engagement

NORC services are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, although social workers can help residents gain access to the services they are entitled to under these programs.

NORC programs exist in at least 25 states, but there is no central database of NORC programs. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging (call Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116 for the number) or your state or city's Office of Aging for NORC programs in your area.

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