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Meals prepared by Ritz-Carlton-caliber chefs, a concierge to arrange theater tickets and dinner reservations, and a personal trainer to keep you fit—these are perks you’d expect at a luxury hotel. But these days, you can also find them at upscale senior housing communities.

“Everyone is looking to step up their game,” says Ed Taylor, an owner of Tuscan Gardens, an assisted living and memory care center now under construction in Venice. “We want it to feel like you are entering a nice, high-end resort.”

Venice, with a 67-year-old median age and above-average income, is experiencing a wave of new senior housing to meet the needs of its aging population. Tuscan Gardens will have Mediterranean-inspired suites, apartments and rooms for 150 residents when it opens later this year. Autumn Leaves, a memory-care only community, is building private rooms and planning specialized activities and services for 54 residents who have Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairment.

The long-established Jacaranda Trace is adding about 150 independent, assisted living and memory care units. And the nonprofit Village on the Isle is also planning a major expansion under a new chief executive.

 

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Amenities and pricing vary, but the market overall is moving away from institutional green halls and cafeteria-style dining to clubhouses with lounges, pool tables and round-the-clock bistros.

“The days of a cookie-cutter approach to senior living are long gone,” says Dan Willis, senior vice president of partner services for A Place for Mom, one of the largest referral companies in North America. “There are a variety of senior living options just as there are a variety of homes. What we are seeing in the market depends on the spectrum of care [from independent living to skilled nursing].”

It can be overwhelming and emotional for an older person to decide to move from a family home filled with memories into a senior living community. Many don’t make that decision until they have to. Often an illness, the death of a spouse or a fall puts a senior and, often, his or her adult children, into the position of having to quickly find housing to meet the needs of daily living.

But executives at senior communities say that increasingly the college lectures, the gourmet meals and trips to the Keys they offer are enticing older people to be proactive and make the move into independent living when they’re healthy.

“It’s like you’re on a cruise ship and every day you’re docked someplace else,” says Joe Traficante, who’s a senior lifestyle counselor at Aston Gardens. “All the amenities are included.”

The difference between the living options—independent living, assisted living and nursing home—is predicated on the level of care a senior requires. Independent living is not much different in some communities than living in a master-planned gated community; people buy or rent their own home and come and go as they please. Residents have access to all the activities, but there are no medical services included. Meals are typically separate and optional.

Assisted living is for seniors who need help with daily living. States regulate what services have to be included. In Florida, assisted living facilities provide “supervision, assistance with personal and supportive services, and assistance with or administration of medications to elders and disabled adults who require such service.”

Skilled nursing homes, the only level of care that is typically covered by insurance, provide round-the-clock supervision and “custodial care”—getting in and out of bed, and help with feeding, bathing and dressing.

 

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Managers at Village on the Isle, a nonprofit senior community within walking distance of downtown Venice, say many of their residents make the choice themselves to move into independent living. “No one is telling them what to do,” says Kristen Myers, senior associate director of sales, adding that they almost always have waiting lists for their apartments and condominiums. Purchasing a home in a senior community gives people the security of knowing they can remain in the community as medical needs change, she says.

Active seniors who buy into independent living have many options, from a two-bedroom, two-bath villa that sells in the mid-$200s at Aston Gardens to a higher-end home in Jacaranda Trace priced at $400,000. They can also rent an apartment.

“Think of it as a nice hotel,” Willis says about the luxury communities. “There is marble, fresh flowers, and nice furnishings and a concierge.”

Apartments and villas in independent living communities also frequently have granite counters, stainless steel appliances, tall ceilings and crown molding. Residents often hire an interior decorator.

“Services are evolving over time,” says Willis, whose company has 420 advisors to help seniors and their adult children find a community that fits their needs and budgets. His company works with 18,000 communities across the country.

“For some people dining is everything. Some want lifelong learning lectures and classes. Others want a fitness room and a spa,” he says. “We help them understand their options and suggest three or four places.”

Dining is another way that communities distinguish themselves. “In the past, you had a single dining room with a pre-set menu,” Willis says. “That’s being replaced by multiple dining options, such as a bistro or a fine-dining restaurant. Many communities are engaging well-known chefs and featuring locally grown ingredients.”

 

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Village on the Isle recently finished a multimillion dollar renovation of its kitchen. It also created a café that’s open all the time, serving gourmet coffee and ice cream.

Fitness centers with personal trainers to customize a fitness program are becoming common. So, too, are brain training programs to sharpen the mind. Some communities bring in professors from nearby universities for weekly lectures on foreign affairs or to discuss literature.

One of the biggest concerns of seniors is moving again when their needs change. That’s why some communities promote a continuing care approach, where residents can stay in independent living and hire home health workers to help with medicine and daily living. When home care becomes prohibitively expensive, residents can transition to skilled nursing in the same community.

The nonprofit Village on the Isle follows this continuing care model. It has more than 200 residential apartment homes, 100 assisted living facility accommodations and a 60-bed skilled nursing facility on Venice Island.

Many senior communities are adding memory care services to accommodate residents with cognitive problems, and there is a luxury end to that market as well. Autumn Leaves, a company that specializes in Alzheimer’s care with 40 facilities across the U.S., is building a 37,000-square-foot community in Venice that will care for 54 residents with memory problems. Residents can have private rooms, bring their furniture from home and enjoy home-cooked meals with their families in a private dining room. The community halls are designed as neighborhoods to help residents with memory, and the communities feature a therapeutic kitchen that “daily dispenses the aroma of fresh-baked cookies, pies and other smells that stimulate nostalgic memories and new conversations,” according to the company’s website.

Both marketers and residents agree that senior communities are getting better and better. And there’s a reason for that, says Willis: “If you want to be successful in a market, you build to what families want.”

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