Nikkei Senior Gardens, which opened last year in Arleta, was designed to… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
Tom Doi harvested a bountiful crop of vegetables last fall: tomatoes, corn, eggplant and green beans. He reaped so much produce from his garden, in fact, that he could share his vine-ripened Big Boy tomatoes with the folks at Nikkei Senior Gardens, a San Fernando Valley assisted-living facility.
Senior homes such as Nikkei often receive donations from outsiders. In this case, however, the donation came from within: Doi, an energetic 88-year-old, is a resident.
"I'm going back to my roots," he says. "I've always had a yard and a garden to tend. This is the latest one."
Nikkei Senior Gardens, which opened last year in Arleta, offers retirement housing with a back-to-the-Earth difference: Residents can tend their own garden plots. In addition, the complex includes a mini fruit orchard and an artfully designed Japanese garden. Although the facility is open to residents of all ethnic backgrounds, it was designed to appeal specifically to Japanese American seniors, many of whom enjoy gardening.
Other amenities to make them feel at home: Both Western and Eastern cuisines are served, staff members are multilingual and programming includes courses in Japanese cooking and language. What may seem like a specialized type of senior housing, however, is actually part of a growing trend: niche communities that target specific segments of the population.
"Niche communities represent the future of senior housing because of the sheer size of the baby boomer population," says educator Andrew Carle, who notes that the nation's 78 million boomers — the first of whom will turn 65 next year — control 70% of the wealth in the U.S. He predicts the group's entrance into the retirement housing market will cause massive changes.
"In the future, there will likely be niche communities for nearly every interest group," says Carle, who directs the assisted-living and senior-housing program at George Mason University in Virginia. Niche housing currently represents only a small segment of senior housing — less than 1%. "But I believe it will grow to as much as a third of the market in the next 30 years," Carle says.
One reason: As families disperse geographically and aging seniors lose the comfort of care from a blood relative, many essentially look for a second family in people with like backgrounds and interests. Among the niche senior communities currently available:
*For artists and poets: The nation's first housing complex designed specifically for creative seniors opened five years ago in downtown Burbank. Retirees searching for their inner artist need look no further than the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, where they can find inspiration in the art studio, emote in the theater complex, take writing or poetry classes, sing in the choir or chat up friends in the Hollywood-themed clubhouse.
"It's the most remarkable place. It's a family where everyone gets to try all the creative things they ever wanted to try," spokesman Joseph Caro says. The Colony has been recognized as a model for creative aging by the National Endowment for the Arts.
*For rah-rah university alums: One of the fastest-growing segments of the market is retirement housing on or near college campuses. Residents can take classes, visit the library, hear a concert or catch the big game. Carle says more than 80 university-based communities are open or on the drawing boards, including facilities at Stanford, Notre Dame and Duke. In Los Angeles, Belmont Village of Westwood accommodates UCLA alum and retired faculty and staff; Bruin profs sometimes give lectures at the village.
*For gay and lesbian seniors: Several complexes around the country cater to gay residents. They include affordable housing such as Triangle Square, a 104-unit structure in Hollywood, and upscale developments such as RainbowVision Santa Fe, a 13-acre complex in New Mexico. RainbowVision offers gay and straight retirees a range of housing options, from condos to an assisted-living complex; facilities in Palm Springs and Vancouver, British Columbia, are planned. According to the American Society on Aging, other gay and lesbian retirement communities are under construction or in the planning stages from Washington state to Florida.
*RVers: Happy trails can turn bumpy when RVers become too tired or old to drive but have only a rig to call home. That's when Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees steps in. Located at Rainbow's End RV Park in Livingston, Texas, CARE is a day-care center and assisted-living facility that helps residents who live in their RVs but can no longer travel. They can get three meals a day and a snack, have laundry done and receive transportation to medical appointments. The center's pitch: "The atmosphere at CARE is more like a RV rally and is nothing like a nursing home."
Targeting a specific senior market is nothing new: Some of the nation's oldest senior complexes were founded by and for religious groups: Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Jews.