January 18, 2013

      by Colin Milner


The dust settles on the construction of your active-adult project. Soon the electricians, roofers, plumbers and other tradespeople will have moved on to their next project, and you will face the task of transforming bricks and mortar into a community of homes. After all, home is where the heart is, and the heart is what drives purchases. So, how do you turn your housing development into home base for people who seek an active-adult lifestyle? One word: Wellness.

Of course, there are many ways that providers define wellness — from offering fitness solutions for those who want to improve, manage or prevent health issues, to promoting new adventures and opportunities for residents. The keys are enriched cultures, environments and services that support individuals in remaining active, independent and fully engaged in their lives and in their communities.

Over the past decade, senior living developers have increasingly embraced the power and promise of the wellness approach. According to the International Council on Active Aging® (ICAA) Wellness Industry Development Survey 2010, 65% of respondents in senior living communities said they have formal wellness programs. Especially interesting is the fact that 45% of respondents had developed their programs within the previous one to five years. Among those who responded to this survey, 39% worked in active-adult and continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs).

Fast-forward to the results of ICAA’s Wellness Industry Development Survey 2012 to find 73% of survey respondents reported having a formal wellness program — an increase of 12% over the previous survey. Of respondents to the 2012 survey, 42% came from active-adult communities or CCRCs.

And growth does not appear to be slowing. In ICAA’s 2012 survey, about 70% of those with a formal wellness program reported that they planned on increasing their offerings over the next two years. None planned to decrease program offerings.

The Wellness Shift

Why are all of these communities investing in wellness? The top two reasons given by respondents to the 2012 ICAA survey were " increasing life satisfaction for older adults" (93%) and "a means to attract new residents" (83%). The research suggests that improving and/or maintaining quality of life is a primary growth driver. What’s more, 61% of current customers and residents demand it.

The ICAA, an internationally respected professional association for the active-aging industry, recommends that developers set up formal wellness programs that embrace seven dimensions:

  • Physical (e.g., physical activity, nutrition, sleep)

  • Social (e.g., clubs, dancing, group activities)

  • Intellectual (e.g., journaling, games/puzzles)

  • Spiritual (e.g., faith-based, mindfulness)

  • Emotional (e.g., stress management, humor)

  • Environmental (e.g., meditation gardens, walking trails)

  • Vocational (e.g., paid work, volunteering)

The 2012 ICAA survey results found that three-fourths of the responding communities with formal wellness programs offered all seven dimensions.

Success with Wellness

Simply providing activities for residents will not necessarily support wellness, however, or ensure that individuals feel part of a community. An example of a senior living provider that articulates a more complete approach to wellness is On Top of the World Communities Inc., a 55+ active-adult community in Ocala, Fla., with 8,000 residents. “At On Top of the World Communities, we have a clear and distinctive vision that wellness is a way of life,” wrote Fitness Director Cammy Dennis in an article for ICAA’s Functional U® publication (January/February 2010). According to Dennis, the organization views aging actively as “vital to nurturing body, mind and spirit” and strives “to create a wellness environment that inspires and empowers the residents. We believe that these positive feelings enhance lifestyle behaviors,” she continued, “and it is these behaviors that will promote function, independence and improve quality of life.”

At Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community, a CCRC in West Columbia, S. C., Director of Wellness Denise Heimlich helped develop a $4-million, 12,000-sq.ft. freestanding wellness center, and launched a wellness program. “Physical fitness proved a good way to begin a program,” observed Heimlich in a recently published article in ICAA’s Journal on Active Aging®. “So that has evolved to a main focus.”

Heimlich explained that the evidence-based program at Still Hopes is based on the research of such influential figures as Drs. John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, investigators for the MacArthur Foundation Study for Successful Aging and authors of the book Successful Aging,  and Drs. Thomas T. Perls and Margery Hutter Silver, directors of the New England Centenarian Study and authors of Living to 100.

At Still Hopes, said Heimlich, “we offer lectures, mind-body wellness classes, field trips and programs that highlight the other wellness dimensions—for example, brain fitness, and a course on preserving a meaningful life.” She noted, “We found that once our residents realized the full benefits of physical fitness, we were able to tie that in with mental and emotional health and to demonstrate the synergy between socialization and fitness, such as exercising with peers and staff, and remaining healthy enough to be involved in the community.”

Along with others on the edge of active aging, these professionals and their organizations have come to understand wellness at a more profound level. Wellness is not made up of seven separate dimensions, but seven dimensions that are totally integrated, both in terms of what programming offers participants and the benefits they derive. Physical activity, for example, promotes cognitive, emotional and physical health. When it’s a group walk, that activity includes socialization, and if the walk takes place in a park, participants benefit from spiritual and environmental elements as well.

Marketing Wellness

To drive broad adoption of wellness, a community needs the right people in place, because the diverse offerings that will support residents in active aging require a person or team to manage them. According to the 2012 ICAA survey results, 32% of respondents plan to hire new wellness staff to support their programs’ growth. Survey respondents also planned increases in wellness-related amenities. These included walking trails or paths (19%), meditation garden/gardening areas (18%), game courts (15%), and wellness centers in a stand-alone or attached building (13%), among others.

A strong internal and external marketing effort is also vital. In this context, however, marketing goes far beyond flyers, newsletter articles or branded programs — it encompasses everything you do to promote wellness. The foundation is in building the right culture.

A wellness culture recognizes what older adults bring to communities — their talents, abilities, life experiences, efforts and ideas, for example. This culture includes residents in decision-making and puts them in empowered roles. It encourages people to be role models for their peers, and strives to shift the conversation from the things people cannot do to the things they can.

Still Hopes provides a notable example with its Triathlon Team. Aimed at adults aged 55 and older, the team was started as a way to break the stereotypes of aging. The community offered a progressive training program for those who had never competed in athletics, as well as those who had completed at least one athletic event. The Still Hopes Team completed its first race in July 2012 with six team members ranging in age from 59 to 78. According to Heimlich, 5 of the 6 competing team members placed either first, second, or third in their age groups.

Demographics Predict a Growing Interest in Wellness

There are 110 million Baby Boomers and their parents, with more than $2.7 trillion in spending power. They are 47 times richer than their younger counterparts, they will account for 70% of discretionary income in the U.S. within the next five years, and they are looking for environments, products and services to help them age well.

This group is in search of a home, not a house. A focus on wellness offers builders and developers a model for the culture, environments, services and tools you need to provide this. The question is, will you be that provider?

NOTE: All photos in this story are from the  2013 Best of 50+ Housing Awards Fitness & Wellness winners, Willow Valley Retirement Communities Center for Vitality, Lancaster, Pa.and Nueva Vista at La Vida Llena, Albuquerque, N.M.


Colin Milner, founder and CEO of the International Council on Active Aging® (ICAA), is a leading authority on the health and well-being of the older adult. For the past five years, the World Economic Forum has invited Milner to serve on its Network of Global Agenda Councils.

He has written more than 250 articles and is an editorial advisor to "ADVANCE for Long-Term Care Management," a contributing blogger to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' "Be Active Your Way" blog, the PBS-sponsored website "Next Avenue," and has been published in journals such as "Global Policy."

He also contributed a chapter to the book "Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise?" in 2012, and hosted the "Age-Friendly BC Community" video series released last Spring by the British Columbia Ministry of Health.

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