Do You Live in a NORC (or Should You)?

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Right now, it’s possible that more than twice as many seniors live in NORCs than in planned senior communities.

Despite this popularity, NORCs are generally invisible except to the people who live in them. You might not even know a building is a NORC until you move in. You might not even know it immediately after you move in.

Nevertheless, NORCs offer many of the benefits of a planned retirement community, without the drawbacks like higher prices or decreased independence. Seniors may stay in NORCs for decades as they build ties to the community and local services.

If you are thinking about moving to a place that better fits your needs, consider a NORC. 

What is a NORC?

NORC is an acronym that stands for a “naturally occurring retirement community”. Michael Hunt and Gail Gunter-Hunt came up with the term in 1986. Basically, a NORC is an area that was not initially designed for seniors, but many seniors live there now anyway. Overall, NORCs attract seniors but, unlike a nursing home or retirement community, they are not built explicitly for seniors.

NORCs can be large or small, ranging from entire neighborhoods to single apartment buildings. But usually, they are smaller and have fewer than 500 residents.

There are three ways an area or building can become a NORC:

  • Aging in place
  • Young people move out (aged-left-behind)
  • Seniors move in (in-migration)

Aging in Place

In this case, a group of people probably bought their homes or moved into their apartments at the same time when they were younger. They stayed in those homes long enough that they are all now seniors. Since most seniors prefer to stay in their homes as long as possible, this is a common way for NORCs to spring up.

Young People Move Out (Aged-Left-Behind)

This type of NORC happens most often in places where the economy is declining. Younger people looking for jobs move away from an area. That leaves behind older residents who are either retired or already have jobs, and are already committed to the area.

Seniors Move In (In-Migration)

This is the most interesting and relevant kind of NORC for seniors. In this case, seniors all move into an area that was not explicitly advertised for them. Maybe they have friends who already live there who convinced them to come, or maybe a lot of seniors made the decision independently. In either case, something about the area is attractive to seniors.

In fact, you can differentiate these NORCS based on what attracted the seniors to them.

Amenity NORCs attract seniors based on features like beaches, restaurants, shopping, theaters, hiking trails, or other activities. Usually, these attract younger, more active retirees who want to escape city life.

Convenience NORCs attract seniors based on nearby healthcare or services, such as a hospitals, good public transit, or nearby local businesses. Usually, convenience NORCs draw in older seniors from rural areas that no longer meet their needs.

NORCs in Apartment Buildings

In many cases, seniors may choose to move when they can no longer stay at home. Often, they will move to apartments that are smaller, easier to maintain, and do not have any stairs.

Seniors typically choose the best apartment building based on three factors:

  • Location: is it close to friends and family, and to essential services or healthcare?
  • Management: is the building well-maintained and quiet?
  • Design: is it easy to get around (for instance, are there elevators) and do the apartments fit my abilities?

Apartment buildings that fit all three requirements will attract more seniors. Eventually, enough seniors will move in to make them NORCs.

Why You Would Want To Live in a NORC

NORCs are popular for all the reasons seniors move to them in the first place. They are usually close to essential services, offer good public transportation, and may be near attractions like lakes or beaches.

Likewise, NORCs usually offer better social services for seniors than other independent communities.

As seniors age, they often need some level of in-home support like cleaning or a home health aide. With this help, they can avoid moving to a higher level of care. In a NORC, many seniors live close together. That makes it easier for support programs to deliver these essential services. Service providers do not have to spend money on locating seniors or outreach, so they can offer a higher level of care.

The services may still be better in planned retirement communities since they were originally built with seniors in mind. But, retirement communities are also more expensive and do not offer the same level of independence and control.

There are also more opportunities for social life in NORCs. It’s easier to visit friends when they are right next door. Some seniors also appreciate that NORCs are generally mixed-age communities: they include both young people and older people. That usually means the social life is more diverse and active.

Why You Might Not Want to Live in a NORC

Of course, there are certain disadvantages to living in a NORC, mostly because they were never planned for seniors.

The drawbacks depend on the availability of services. Retirement communities have to include certain services to attract seniors in the first place. Because NORCs arise organically, little attention is given to attracting seniors before they actually move in. As a result, NORCs may not include essential services.

However, as NORCs have become more common, they have evolved to include better social services. Mostly that is a result of the Older Americans Act and the 2005 White House Conference on Aging, which made more funding available for elder services.

However, certain areas may not want to support seniors at all. Owners of apartment complexes, for instance, may worry that focusing on seniors will make the apartments less attractive to younger residents. Adding ramps or wheelchair access might make the space seem less hip, or medicalize it.

Like any other housing decision, it comes down to location. If you find a place that offers the services and amenities you need, you can benefit from living nearby both other seniors and younger people.

On the other hand, some people will not like the idea of living in mixed-age communities. After all, young people and seniors have very different schedules, lifestyles, and noise tolerances.

A Middle-Ground Housing Choice

In their original article, Michael Hunt and Gail Gunter-Hunt described NORCs as between staying in your own home and moving to a planned retirement community.

Like a retirement community, NORCs offer the benefit of a supportive neighborhood and the chance to socialize with other seniors. But, unlike a retirement community, you can still live independently in a mixed-age area, especially if you have some in-home care.

This range of benefits is what makes NORCs so popular. If your house is no longer meeting your needs, you may want to consider moving to a NORC. You may live in one already and not even know it.

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Penn Asian Senior Services

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