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Niche Retirement Communities: Not for Everyone But Lots of Options

Whether you’re passionate about the arts, giddy about gardening, or allergic to animals, chances are there’s a retirement community that suits your needs—more specifically than you ever imagined.

Niche retirement communities, also known as affinity retirement communities, cater to residents’ precise interests, hobbies, backgrounds, and experiences. Take Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa, California, which LGBTQ+ residents call home, or Burbank Senior Artist Colony, where residents watch live theater and take writing classes.

“Affinity retirement communities were thought of as one potential way to bring people together around common interests or population groups,” says Dr. Angie Perone, assistant professor and director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Advanced Study of Aging Services. The model can help mitigate social disruption as spatial, cognitive, or mobility challenges arise during the aging process.

It’s also just another way to have fun and connect with like-minded people.

Why Some People Choose Affinity Communities

For some people, it’s as simple as “I’d love to golf every day” or “I choose to worship like those around me.” In a 2017 article on LGBTQ niche housing, one resident said, “I like the community. I like the gayness of the community. I love that. I love that we’re freer here than in other neighborhoods.”

Regardless of their focus, affinity retirement communities generally offer similar benefits:

  • Social acceptance: Like a college dormitory, people in niche retirement communities share immediate commonalities.
  • Emotional security: People find reassurance and a sense of safety in communities with similar lived experiences.
  • Financial predictability: Some affinity communities are pricey while others are more affordable.
  • Continuum of care: From independent living to skilled nursing, many communities offer different levels of assistance as medical needs change.

As affinity housing tends to attract younger retirees, experts are also looking to these spaces for the latest trends. For instance, what was considered a fixture in retirement communities—the hair salon—is now being phased out of retirement housing plans, in favor of more active spaces preferred by baby boomers.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of interest in these types of communities, says Perone. So plan ahead for a waitlist.

Tracking the Affinity Model

About a decade ago, analysts predicted demand for these types of affinity communities would skyrocket as baby boomers retired. Although more have certainly opened, it can be difficult to track or distinguish what makes a niche retirement community. Some have even developed organically around certain populations or lived experiences.

Early niche or affinity communities were founded in the 1990s under the nonprofit model, says Perone. For one, Air Force Village opened in 1989 in Riverside, California, for retired U.S. military officers. The third largest senior living community at the time, it was considered a groundbreaking model, but as the demographics of the region changed over the years, the business struggled to bring in enough residents to fit the niche. In 2015, it opened its doors to the general population, later filed for bankruptcy, and was purchased by a for-profit company.

The biggest concern for affinity communities is sustainability, says Perone. “It’s a challenge this [affinity] model may encounter more so than other models.”

Finally, there is a consideration that the pendulum can swing too far in either direction: communities that target too broad a demographic or too narrow. As more research emerges about the complexities of human identity, specifically around intersectionality of lived experiences, more attention is being paid to the successes and failures of affinity retirement communities.

Find Your People But Do Your Research

Don’t just look for fun and affordability. Be diligent in researching the company that owns your targeted retirement community. Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior housing industry is in flux. Some communities are facing financial challenges.

According to Perone, here are some questions to ask during your research:

  • What kind of financial reserves does this community have?
  • Is there a board of directors? If so, who is responsible for ensuring the organization’s solvency?
  • Is it a nonprofit model? If not, who are the owners and vendors?

Basically, keep an eye out for financial red flags. It’s important that any retirement community is transparent and adaptable, not only to its residents’ personal needs but to broader market changes.

Wherever you choose to spend your retirement, Perone sees hope. “There are places for folks who want to find like-minded individuals throughout California. There is a space for everyone.”