March 26, 2007
The Press Enterprise
Amanda Strindberg

Forget chair exercises, meatloaf and bingo.

Today’s newest seniors to join retirement living want Pilates, Chinese chicken salad and wireless-ready housing.

“They want it all,” said Maria Dwight, a Santa Monica-based consultant who helps clients plan and market senior housing. “In the past it was about healthcare and the nursing staff, but this group is saying I am not ready for that. I want Pilates, a lap pool, gourmet dinner and I want to lead my own life with flexible choices.”

But as retirement communities add the extra frills to remain marketable to a more active set of seniors, there is grumbling among their elders, housing experts say.

“Change is very threatening to them,” Dwight said. “They think, ‘I don’t want to pay for something I’m not going to use.’ ”

It’s a stressful time in the industry as two generations rub together in these communities — those who grew up in the Great Depression and those who came of age in postwar prosperity. Often there’s bickering over adding amenities such as gourmet cuisine, updated fitness equipment and wellness classes.

“This new generation just has very different expectations,” Dwight said. “And the older generation just thinks I don’t need all this. I wasn’t brought up that way.”

Expanded Menu of Extras

Terri Marie Larmer, a director at Plymouth Village retirement community in Redlands, where ages range from 65 to mid-90s, said she can typically tell which generation an incoming resident is from by the questions they ask on their initial visit.

The younger ones don’t want to even see the health center — they aren’t ready for that, she said. They’re more interested in the aesthetics and amenities the retirement community offers.

These days residents can find an expanded menu of extras.

“We had to keep up with the change or we weren’t going to remain viable,” Larmer said.

Three years ago it was bingo, puzzles and movie nights.

“It was a lot more sedentary,” Larmer said. “Things to do to pass the time.”

Now the center is focusing on more active and mind-stimulating programs.

A computer-based brain fitness program, Posit Science, was recently added to help improve memory, alertness and understanding skills.

And more intellectual activities have been introduced, including a Shakespeare group and a creative writing class.

The center also recently upgraded the fitness center and renovated the pool to include lap lanes. A golf putting green and a walking trail with fitness stations are on the way. And come summer, residents can test their Pilates skills.

“The generation coming in tends to be a little more picky,” Larmer said. “They are used to certain standards.”

This includes the amenities in their homes. Laminate countertops and linoleum floors, no thanks. Incoming seniors want Berber carpet, wood floors, shutters and granite countertops, extras Plymouth Village didn’t offer two years ago.

Plymouth Village seniors also can take advantage of a concierge service. Through the concierge, residents can make dinner reservations, book tickets to a play and have their dry cleaning sent out.

The retirement community also has plans to open a bistro, a more casual eating option with “come when you want” dining hours. The lighter-fare café will serve spa-like cuisine, including salads and gourmet sandwiches.

Older residents can stick to set eating times in the more formal dining room.

“They like a set schedule,” Larmer said. “But the younger generation doesn’t want to be tied down to a certain eating time. They want to eat when they want to eat.”

Culture Clashes

As Plymouth Village transforms into a more resort-like community, it has tried to calm the fears of anxious elders by maintaining its rates through budget adjustments and fundraising.

“As long as I explain to them it’s not going to cost them anything, they’re typically OK,” Larmer said. “And many of them are really enjoying the changes.”

Mary Lou Lane, the social butterfly of the center who tells people they’ll find out her age at her funeral, said she doesn’t need the extras, but they are nice additions.

“Some residents are resistant because they don’t think they’ll use any of it,” she said. “But if anyone uses it, it’s wonderful to have.”

At Sun Lakes Country Club retirement community in Banning, not all the residents have that same amiable attitude about the upgraded fitness center with flat-screen TVs embedded into the equipment.

The $700,000 renovation was a heated debate.

“It’s a constant battle,” said Carol Tasko, board president of Sun Lakes Country Club Homeowners Association. “The old timers don’t want to spend the money, and you can’t blame them because they don’t have as much spendable income, and the younger ones want all the amenities. It’s a generational thing.”

At Atria Hacienda, a senior-living community in Palm Desert, it’s the same story.

“The wants of the new generation are much different,” said John Redford, executive director of the community, which ranges in age from 74 to 100. “They have more materialistic concerns. But every time you add an amenity, those in their 80s and 90s wonder if you’re wasting money.”

As the community adds more amenities, including fitness classes, a putting green and weekend transportation that runs as late as 11 p.m. to pick up the nightlife crowd, there is some resistance.

“The older ones think, ‘We don’t need this,’ ” Redford said.

And by all means, don’t show up for dinner in the dinning room in shorts with a ringing cell phone.

“(The older seniors) flip out when the cell phone rings at dinner,” Redford said. “And the younger ones like to answer it. Five years ago you would have never seen cell phones in seniors’ hands.”

This intergenerational tension is only expected to swell as more and more baby boomers enter their golden years, during which they are expected to be more active than the generation that came before them. By 2030, one in five residents is expected to be 65 and older.

At age 45, Darla Issa of Loma Linda, already has big plans for her retirement.

“I want it all,” she said. “The spas, the facials and the Pilates. I want to be spoiled.”