Seniors defy stereotypes

Retirement communities aren’t what they used to be

By: Heidi Roman | C&G Newspapers | Published May 11, 2011

 Holly McKitrick virtually throws a bowling ball while playing a Wii video game. She plays on a virtual league at American House in Sterling Heights.

Holly McKitrick virtually throws a bowling ball while playing a Wii video game. She plays on a virtual league at American House in Sterling Heights.

Photos by Erin Sanchez


Picture a typical senior residence and images of bingo, arts and crafts, and green Jell-O might come to mind.

Walk into a modern retirement community, though, and you may be more likely to see seniors playing video games, heading out with a travel group or performing a sun salutation in yoga class.

Today’s senior living communities are not the stale, dreary places stereotypes make them out to be.

“There are plenty of myths that exist,” said Betsy Pilon, director of life enrichment for American House Senior Living Communities, which has 27 locations in Michigan. “Especially for family members, they’re really nervous about their loved ones going into a senior living community. I think there are myths of this being a place where you hang out until you pass away.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, Pilon said. Some people confuse retirement communities for nursing homes or hospitals, but a retirement community offers a different experience.

“People are living longer with complex (medical) conditions,” she said. “How do you keep people engaged? They want to be excited. They want to be involved and have value.”

Bingo is still a popular pastime for the retired, but most retirement facilities today try to make bingo and card night the kinds of activities residents do to wind down.

On other nights, they’re likely staying active, both mentally and physically.

“There are so many things going on,” Pilon said. “The goal is to create a multisensory experience for residents. The more active the brain is, the better quality life you’re going to live.”

American House offers history classes, interactive art demonstrations, music lessons, and outings that feature culture and music.

“It’s more than just sitting around and crocheting,” Pilon said.

A popular activity in many retirement communities is playing Wii video game systems, which feature bowling and other sports. American House facilities even have Wii bowling leagues that compete against other facilities.

Jane Allison, a new developer for Oscoda Senior Condominiums and Quad-Wis LLC said many seniors who live in a retirement community are still very independent.

“I think the misconception is that retirement communities are a blue-hair club — people who are no longer capable and need assistance and haven’t had a good time with their health, and so on,” she said. “But lately what we’re seeing is, people are getting more and more intelligent with their money. The over 55 crowd is a very, very vital group. They’re not looking for care, necessarily, but they don’t want to live in a community with lots of children.”

They don’t want to take care of yard work and snow shoveling, either, Allison said. Some are snowbirds who travel to warmer climates in the winter months and might prefer to just lock up the front door and travel without worrying about home maintenance.

When they’re home, they want to stay busy.

“In Oscoda they go boating, canoeing; they go to festivals, hunting,” Allison said. “There are many, many activities.”

In Oscoda Senior Living, the seniors can hang out at a movie theater, card playing lounge, woodworking shop or computer room, or walk through the vegetable and flower garden and on outdoor trails.

Today’s senior stays involved in the community by volunteering on committees or performing in community bands, Allison said.