What Is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community?

Definition & Examples of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities

Caretaker with retired people in nursing home
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A naturally occurring retirement community, or NORC, is a community that has a sizeable population of older adults but wasn't necessarily designed for older adults.

Learn about the features, pros, and cons of a NORC to determine whether it's the right living arrangement for you or a family member.

What Is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community?

A NORC is a community that wasn't expressly built for older adults but now has a significant number of them because these adults have stayed in or moved to them as they have aged. However, many NORCs offer a variety of services and activities to help older adults thrive. As such, you can think of a NORC as a mix of aging in place while giving seniors everything they need to age well.

  • Acronym: NORC

How a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Works

The population of American adults aged 65 or older is expected to rise to 70 million by 2030. The growth of this population, coupled with an increasing number of older adults who want to "age in place" or remain in their homes as they age, has led to the dramatic growth of NORCs in locations around the country, particularly in cities.

A naturally occurring retirement community is a middle ground between independent living and living in a long-term care facility in the sense that the community of older residents forms organically, but NORC programs funded jointly by government agencies and private organizations allow services and activities for older adults to be offered on-site. This is why NORCs typically comprise not only residents but also social service and health care providers and housing managers or neighborhood association representatives.

For example, let’s say Mike moved into a high-rise in New York City at age 45 when it was first constructed as an ordinary apartment building. Cut to two decades later, Mike is 65 and has a lot of friends in the building who are his age and have lived there as long as he has. As Mike and his friends have aged together and have enjoyed their experience in the building, they've told other friends about it, and as a result, an increasing number of older people have also moved into the building. It is now largely populated by people either approaching retirement age or already age 65 or over. In fact, well over half the building is past retirement age. Mike's building is an example of a naturally occurring retirement community.

Recognizing the need to help Mike and other residents of the NORC lead healthy, fulfilling lives as they age, New York City's Department of Health operates a NORC program that funds dozens of NORCs like the one Mike lives in. As a result, Mike has access to social and health services through his NORC, including guidance with his entitlement benefits and on-site wellness activities.

Consider moving into a NORC before retirement so that by the time you reach retirement age, you can start using the NORC program right away and won’t have to move to receive the benefits.

Types of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities

NORCs generally fall into two broad categories:

  • Housing-based: This NORCs take the form of a single building or housing development, such as a multi-age apartment building or condominium with a high concentration of older adults.
  • Neighborhood-based: These NORCs typically refer to single-family or multi-family homes that dwell in a multi-age neighborhood but are dominated by older adults.

Benefits of a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community

When it comes to the services and activities they provide, the above types of naturally occurring retirement communities fall on a spectrum from regular NORCs with basic benefits to healthy NORCs with more robust benefits.

A regular NORC that offers a NORC program might provide access to the following:

  • Medical services: Residents can consult visiting nurses and doctors, for example.
  • Social services: Older adults can get on-site case-management assistance, for example.
  • Wellness activities: Fitness and other health-related classes are common activities.
  • Social activities: This might include on-site dances, clubs or groups, or organized outings.
  • Help with benefits and entitlements: For example, older adults may be able to seek guidance in claiming Social Security benefits.
  • Educational activities: Various courses may be available to residents.

A healthy NORC includes the benefits of a regular NORC, plus health-focused features such as:

  • Walkability: The NORC is pedestrian-friendly, and basic amenities are within walking distance.
  • Public transportation: There is sufficient public transportation to get to important facilities and points of interest in and around the NORC.
  • Amenities and points of interest: Healthy NORCs provide amenities ranging from tables and benches to play facilities. They also build or maintain destinations, such as parks.
  • Safety: In healthy NORCs, residents have a sense that the NORC is safe and crime-free.
  • High level of community participation and interaction: Residents are encouraged to engage in the NORC program and in the community (through volunteering, for example), and the NORC population is dense enough that unplanned social interaction between residents is common.
  • Senior-friendly local government: The local government not only sees a high level of participation from older adults but enacts policies that are beneficial to this population.
  • Responsive private sector: Neighboring companies respond to the needs of older adults.

How Much Does a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Cost?

Residents of NORCs typically pay annual membership fees to use the NORC program. Fees vary by location, NORC, and the number of adults enrolling (an individual or a couple). But as NORCs are largely funded by public and private entities, fees are typically low, and lower than those for assisted-living facilities. For example, Penn South in New York City, the first officially recognized naturally occurring retirement community in the nation, charges only $35 annually for individuals and $50 for families to use its services.

To keep costs down, residents of a NORC might staff some positions on a volunteer basis.

How to Find a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community

NORCs aren't well documented, but the government funded NORC programs in 26 states between 2002 and 2010, and many are still in operation. There are 29 NORCs in New York alone.

Although NORCs are more prevalent in urban areas, they’re also found in suburban and rural areas. The best way to locate a NORC near you is to contact your local Area Agency on Aging, which you can find using the government's "Eldercare Locator" tool online.

Is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Worth It?

A NORC may be an appropriate option for older adults if:

  • They want to age in place: One of the toughest parts of being a senior citizen is when you’re forced to give up your independence. Leaving your community and friends to move in with family or into a long-term care facility can sometimes take an emotional and mental toll. NORCs avoid this scenario because older adults can remain in a community they’ve lived in for years or move into a community with their peers. Plus, instead of moving to where elder-care services are available, the services come to them.
  • They desire a transitional living arrangement: A NORC can help ease the transition from independent living to a long-term care facility.
  • The program is affordable: Most NORC programs are considerably less expensive than long-term care facilities, but you should always review the fees to ensure that what you'll pay is within your budget.
  • The benefits meet your needs: Some NORCs are vibrant communities with a rich menu of services available to residents; others provide only basic services. It's important to choose a NORC with a program that fits your lifestyle.

A naturally occurring retirement community may not be suitable if:

  • You need around-the-clock or complex care: NORC programs don't typically offer comprehensive health care services. If you or your family member needs that type of care, they might be better off going with a long-term care facility.
  • The reputation is lackluster: Not all NORCs have happy residents. Some could be described as sad places where residents aren’t as well-cared for as they deserve, but that’s true of long-term care facilities, too. Before moving into one of these communities, do plenty of research, including talking to a number of current residents to gain a clear view of life in the NORC.

Key Takeaways

  • A naturally occurring retirement community is a community that wasn't designed specifically for older adults but is now largely occupied by them.
  • There are housing-based and neighborhood-based NORCs.
  • NORCs fall on a spectrum from regular NORCs that offer basic services and activities including access to medical care and social services, to healthy NORCs with more robust offerings.
  • As they're funded largely by government agencies and other organizations, fees are low, and typically lower than assisted-living facilities.
  • NORCs provide the most value to older adults who want to age in place but generally aren't suitable for people who need comprehensive care.

Article Sources

  1. Paul J. Masotti, Robert Fick, Ana Johnson-Masotti, and Stuart MacLeod. "Healthy Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities: A Low-Cost Approach to Facilitating Healthy Aging," The American Journal of Public Health. Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.

  2. Grantmakers in Aging. "Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities." Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.

  3. NYC Department for the Aging. "Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities." Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.

  4. University of Delaware Complete Communities Toolbox. "Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities." Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.

  5. Penn South Social Services. "PS-HOPS Membership & Benefits." Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.

  6. HUD User. "Community-Centered Solutions for Aging at Home." Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.

  7. The New York State Senate. "Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs)." Accessed Oct. 21, 2020.