Seniors still take a bite out of the Big Apple

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Although he's retired, Al Donius can't imagine living anywhere except New York City. Yes, he's well aware how expensive it is to live in Manhattan, but he has no dreams of a quiet Sunbelt retirement.

Instead, he - like many other retirees who think the same way - is too busy taking advantage of the Big Apple's cultural offerings.

Mr. Donius, who's always on the go, sees about 60 plays a year, mostly Off-Broadway, and serves on the admissions committee and the advisory board to the director of the New School University, where he also takes classes.

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He is a poster child for what some see as a trend among retirees across the nation. These seniors - in good health, highly educated, and financially secure - are choosing to live where a diverse palette of opportunities for intellectual stimulation and cross-generational social interaction is readily available.

"Living in the suburbs, or in a retirement community, seems sterile to me," says Eleanor Frorup, who retired from her teaching post at Borough of Manhattan Community College in January. "But in Manhattan, there are lots of occasions to meet peers, as well as make friends with people from younger age groups. And the city offers such a variety of things to do that just isn't offered in the suburbs."

"There are times when you want to do three things on the same day, but you just can't do them all," Donius adds.

He is a member of the Harvard Club of New York City, where he goes to lectures, plays squash, and - as a participant in the club's "Born in the '30s" group - attends social activities, sometimes geared toward singles. He also goes to programs offered by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

"When you live here long enough," Donius says, "you know how to get great deals, especially as a senior. You find out how to get a $25 ticket to the Metropolitan Opera, instead of paying $100, or how to pay $20 for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows through the Theatre Development Fund, instead of $60 or $70."

Museums and arts organizations are sitting up and paying attention to this increasing senior audience - which is avidly interested and has plenty of time, but is not necessarily willing to pay full price.

"This is the upside of the 'graying of the audience' argument," says Kenneth Fischer, president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, "because retirees bring tremendous intellectual and financial resources to the table, and they want to be engaged in cultural activities."

The National Endowment for the Arts' Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts found that those born between 1936 and 1945 showed significantly higher attendance at classical music events, opera, and theatrical plays.

The same holds true for museums. "Especially during daytime weekdays, we are a favorite destination for seniors," says Harold Holzer, vice president of communications and marketing for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We have special guided tours, we welcome groups visiting from condos and residences ... and we send lecturers out to address senior groups all the time."

Never stop learning

In addition to taking advantage of cultural opportunities, today's retirees are also looking at what "lifelong learning" opportunities exist near where they live.

"Increasing numbers of retirees are concluding that [keeping] one's mind alert is what's going to make the difference in enjoying one's later years," says Mr. Fischer.

Ms. Frorup, for example, recently attended a workshop presented by TCMuses, an intergenerational personal-enrichment and learning forum offered by Columbia University's Teachers College.

"It's wonderful to have a smorgasbord of cultural activities to choose from, even if you only make plans on short notice," says Frorup, on her way to explore the Brooklyn Museum of Art's First Saturday series. "And in the summer, New York is incomparable. Besides the many discounted cultural events, there are so many free concerts and other events going on."

James Shields, another New York retiree, concurs.

To his thinking, the convenience of not needing a car, the many possibilities for peer learning, and the broad availability and affordability of events and activities combine to make urban retirement an attractive option.

"When I retired, I gave serious thought to where I wanted my primary residence to be," says this professor emeritus of the City University of New York. "Ultimately, I decided to live near natural scenery within an urban setting." So he moved to an apartment overlooking the Hudson River, within walking distance of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

"If I'd retired out in the country, I wouldn't have the same opportunities to engage in activities focused on international issues," explains Mr. Shields. "You can get a rich experience here without too much effort. For any interests you have, you have a much better chance of meeting people who share your pursuits."

Of course, the urban retiree experience isn't all roses.

"Housing is the killer," says Donius.

"The cost of buying or renting an apartment space is the biggest negative for people coming into the city," he adds. "But suburbanites generally have adequate money, since they are selling a large home after their children leave.

"I look at my housing costs as my 'country club dues' for a great adventure. Also, this real estate has been a far better investment for my three children's inheritance than Wall Street."

Shields agrees. "A number of older couples and singles from New Jersey and other places, who sold their homes, are now living in my building," he says.

"I guess I bought my apartment at the right time, because in the last 1-1/2 years, its value has increased to $400,000. I couldn't buy it today."

Housing costs deter some

In fact, the average price of a Manhattan apartment soared to a record high of $919,959 in the third quarter of this year, according to the Douglas Elliman Manhattan Market Report.

Jean Dorsey, a retired systems consultant who made a conscious decision to remain in Manhattan, is chairperson of her tenants association. "I'm fighting to keep housing costs in line with reality," she says. "Housing is the culprit of retiring in New York."

So despite optimistic, comprehensive sources such as Janet Hays' guidebook, "Retire in New York City - Even if You're Not Rich," inflated urban housing costs and other trends do discourage some urban retirees.

Nevertheless, their numbers are mounting, as are the numbers of seniors who are cultural tourists.

"In 2002, approximately 30 percent of New York City's domestic leisure visitors were age 50 or older," says Amy Solomonson, senior manager of communications of NYC and Company. "We have a section on our website for seniors, detailing senior discounts throughout the city [www.nycvisit.com/seniors]."

The website also offers information on a favorite New York pastime: walking tours.

"Like Paris or London, New York is a great place to walk," says Frorup.

"I love to walk to Washington Square Park," says Donius. "I read there for hours sometimes."

Adds Ms. Dorsey: "I like walking to the corner to take the No. 7 bus to go to the theater. I still want to do that when I'm 90."

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