Active-adult havens for a new breed of (not quite) retirees

At Sun City Huntley, the only thing missing - in the winter, at least - is the sun.

The 55-and-older community, located in the outer Chicago suburbs, may be modeled after the first Sun City that Del Webb opened near Phoenix in 1960, but its golf course and swimming pool aren't much use for a good part of the year.

"We had seen homes like this in Florida, but I wanted to stay in Illinois," says Diane Bell, as she finishes a bocce ball game with friends. Her job, selling lawn and garden supplies, is based nearby, as are several of her kids. In the summer, she and her husband can scoot over to the activity center in their golf cart.

These days, the biggest growth in "active adult" communities is in snow-belt cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. As the first baby boomers hit retirement age, they're already doing many things differently. Forgoing Florida and Arizona - often to stay closer to family - is just one example of a trend fueled in part by an increase in options as developers catch on to what older home-buyers want. Many more are also continuing to work, looking for educational opportunities, or shifting their energies to nonprofit activities.

This generation "looks at retirement more as a transition than as a destination," says Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures and author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America." "They're embarking on a new stage of life as opposed to an exit ramp.... Their parents moved into a pretty well-defined notion of what success was - a focus on leisure and recreation was the norm. I think this is a group that is coming into a whole new chapter that hasn't been well-defined."

The first baby boomers turned 55 - the minimum age for many adult communities - four years ago, but while the prospect of more than 70 million Americans nearing retirement age has developers scrambling to provide an array of options, no one is certain what they want. They have the highest percentage of home ownership of any age group, which might suggest a reluctance to move, as would the fact that they're hanging onto work, at least part time, later and later in life. As a more educated, savvy, and well-traveled group of Americans, however, some may be up for adventure and a change of scene.

"There is no clear set of factors pointing in one direction," says Stephen Golant, a gerontologist at the University of Florida. Anyone who says otherwise, he adds, misses "the complexity of older Americans and particularly this group of older Americans."

Appealing to a 'silent majority'

As a result, community developers are working to appeal to as many as possible. The old stigma of age-defined communities is rapidly disappearing, just as the words "old age" are being replaced with euphemisms like "active adults." New communities cater to subgroups like Asians or gays; some offer proximity to universities for continuing education, or focus on retirees who want to hike and ski in the mountains. Last year alone, about 100 new active-adult communities were started, says Bill Parks, a consultant for such communities, and he expects 200 more this year. He currently has nearly 1,300 in his database.

"As the baby-boomer tsunami washes over us here, there's all sorts of people in every cohort," says Dave Schreiner, vice president of active-adult business development for Pulte Homes. The annual Del Webb Baby Boomer survey, released this month, showed about half of respondents planning to buy a new home for retirement. Del Webb, which is part of Pulte, is opening communities in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado, and New Jersey - areas that Mr. Schreiner says are attractive in part because of how little attention they've attracted in the past. "There was always this vast silent majority that we've never appealed to."

Sun City Huntley, founded in 1998, was one of the early forays into the snow belt. Set on 2,200 acres of former farmland, it's the size of a small town, and will ultimately have 5,800 ranch homes set neatly on manicured lawns and painted in shades of gray and beige.

About half the residents still work, and the average age is slowly dropping down to 60 or 61, says Chris Naatz, a sales representative. Some like the social aspect - Mr. Naatz compares it to living in a college dorm, surrounded by people at a similar stage of life - while others are drawn to the activities. Residents keep the pool and fitness center filled, and the monthly calendar lists everything from field trips to Chicago to meetings of the wood carvers' guild and jazz band.

The prospect of less house and yard maintenance drew Lori and Joe Smalcuga here for a tour. Both in their mid-50s, they're not ready to quit their jobs - "We don't plan on retiring ever!" laughs Lori - but say the pool and softball teams sound attractive. A daughter and granddaughter live nearby, and the commute to their jobs in Itasca wouldn't be too bad.

"When she said, 'Let's go see Del Webb,' I thought she was nuts," says Joe with a laugh. "But this looks really nice."

Leisure and a life of purpose

While not after sun, those retiring to places like Sun City Huntley are still seeking a place that's primarily about leisure. But Mr. Freedman of Civic Ventures says more aging boomers are also looking for ways to become active in education, nonprofits, or highly skilled volunteer jobs. His organization develops ideas and programs to tap into the talents of older Americans; a recent survey of people aged 50 to 70 that Civic Ventures conducted with MetLife showed half of respondents saying they wanted a job that contributed to the greater good.

Rather than focusing on retirement as a liberation from labor, or "a long-awaited vacation," many retirees are looking at retirement as "freedom to work," says Freedman.

"It's a chance to step back," he says. "So many people have a love-hate relationship with work in midlife, and this is when they try to get more love and less hate.

He points to a movement of free medical clinics started by retired doctors and nurses that focus on the uninsured, or to the retiree in Denver who started a community foundation with fellow retirees' Social Security checks to help children in poverty.

Such people "are seeing not only a new stage of life," he says, "but a new phase of work."

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