Intergenerational Living Bests Retirement Communities 

A Milken Institute researcher discusses successful examples and the importance of “financial gerontology.”

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

“By 2030, more people will be over the age of 60 than under the age of 10 worldwide. Across the globe, three out of every five people will live in cities. Realizing the benefits of an older population — while addressing the difficulties and realities — will be one of the great human challenges of the 21st century.’’

 — The Age-Forward Cities for 2030, Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging (2019)

 In his work as a senior fellow and founding chair of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute, in Santa Monica, Calif., Paul Irving feels obligated to ask the difficult questions that face both aging and young Americans.

“What kind of society are we building — a society that encourages understanding and collaboration and appreciation of others, or a society that reinforces the divides that already challenge America?

 “I would make the case that bringing older and younger Americans together enhances the lives of both age groups, and in the mix, increases the likelihood of collaboration, mutual understanding and appreciation,’’ Irving said in an interview with Rethinking65 recently.

Irving, who is a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, sees that divide in settings where retirees enjoy warm weather, low property taxes and simpatico values. 

In Next Avenue, Irving wrote about the impact on society from the proliferation of age-restricted retirement communities such as The Villages, in Central Florida, where retirees flock for more than golf and the climate: It’s the shared cultural, social, political and religious beliefs these developments offer.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, The Villages is the fastest growing metro area in the nation, noted Irving.

“In a demographically changing and urbanizing America, this dominantly white, politically conservative stronghold bucked the trend as retirees lured by warm winters, pastel-hued homes, golf carts and pickleball courts flocked in,’’ Irving wrote in Next Avenue. “We are all free to choose how and where we want to live, of course, and new housing solutions for the rapidly growing population of older Americans are needed. But to be honest, if communities like The Villages represent the future of aging, please count me and many of us out,’’ he wrote.

Lack of Diversity

The lack of diversity in these age-restricted developments alarms Irving, who says that the Milken Institute promotes the “benefits of diverse cities and the case for intergenerational living, which are very different than The Villages.’’

Irving wonders if a place without “the sounds of children and a diversity of races and styles’’ is really a paradise.

“I strongly believe in the value of diversity, including age diversity; I think that diversity has been America’s great strength,’’ Irving said in our interview.

“It still is our great strength, and in many of our most vibrant communities we are designing and building and planning in ways that integrate different cultures and age cohorts and capture the values and resources of colleges and universities,” he said. “These are investments that will weave our society together and they’re smart investments for the future, and many more communities can and must become involved.”

“But when we do the opposite, segregating and dividing and isolating and depressing the level of understanding and cross- fertilization, we do damage to the greatest strength and opportunity that our diversity offers our country,’’ Irving told us.

Beneficial Alternatives

Offering alternatives to that prospect, the Milken Institute‘s Age Forward for Cities 2030 report, written by Caroline Servat and Nora Super, with a foreword by Irving, was published in 2019.

The report discusses how cities, with the help of government, the private sector and social organizations, are working to strengthen social connections, especially among the elderly, and to provide healthcare and living arrangements that make sense for an aging population.

The Milken Institute report says “Age inevitably creates challenges and infirmities. Needs for accessible housing and transportation, and health and home care change and grow with age. Statistics project a dramatic rise in the need for caregivers and services as the baby boomer generation ages.’’

But the report also says that growing numbers of healthy elderly can be caregivers, too, to grandchildren and even children who need household help and babysitters while they work. More intergenerational living promotes this exchange of help between young old, the report says.

“The implications for health are profound. Older adults who are socially isolated or lonely have significantly increased risks of depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke, as well as premature death,’’ says the report.

Cities such as San Diego; Westwood, N.J.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Raleigh, N.C. are participating in a pilot social/medical program called More Than a Meal Phase 3, in which meals are delivered and health screenings performed. A University of Maryland model offers blood pressure and glucose screenings at beauty salons and barbershops.

In Louisville, Ky., a developer is creating mixed-use housing that includes ambulatory care, acute care facilities and affordable housing.

Co-Housing: A Growing Option

Co-housing and home sharing are increasing to accommodate those in need of affordable housing. In 2016, about 10% of children in the United States lived with parents and grandparents, with Asians and Hispanics more likely to live in multi-generational homes, according to the Milken Report.

An entire chapter of the report is devoted to “Designing Intergenerational Communities,’’ in cities.

Washington D.C.’s Safe at Home grants are being used to add handrails and ramps to housing, and below-market-rate housing is being built for the elderly raising grandchildren.

“We can go back to our (2017) Best Cities for Successful Aging Report (Milken Institute),’’ Irving said, “in which an obvious conclusion is that college towns are extraordinary places for (older) people to live in because they offer the possibility of engagement in lifelong learning, they tend to be productive in terms of entrepreneurship and business creation, innovation and job opportunity, they are cultural centers, and they often have superior health systems relative to non-college communities.’’

The report’s top 10 list of the best cities included Madison, Wisc.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Boston, all “college town’’ metro areas. New York placed 11th on the list, where work is afoot to provide affordable housing for the elderly.

Financial Gerontology

 A developer in New York is building 230 affordable housing units in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens; about 25% of the narrow, 400-feet-long housing is for seniors. Their units are set in the center of the building, closest to the elevators, and, the laundry room, community room and gym are on the top floor of the building, near a landscaped roof terrace.

 In Santa Clara, Calif., the planned community Agrihood ( is including 160 mixed-income apartments, 165 homes for low-income seniors and veterans, and 36 townhouses around a 1.5-acre farm. The farm will have a community room, produce stand and learning shed.

Lifting restrictions and controls on ADUs (accessory dwelling units, or in-law suites) can ease the affordable housing shortage, the report says, and cities such as San Francisco and Minneapolis have changed zoning laws to end ADU shortages.

Aging in Place

House sharing in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles are new ways for the elderly — who make up one in four residents in the 100 largest metropolitan areas — to age in place, rather than moving into a retirement development or assisted living/nursing home.

“What we know is that a very high percentage of people want to age in place. They are moving into retirement and assisted living communities later and later,’’ Irving said.

“What we need are national and local programs to adapt homes to the specifications of universal design and the realities of the new demography. Across the country, we need programs like one we have in Los Angeles to encourage the development of ADUs and other housing innovations. We need to create subsidies for those in need, to encourage intergenerational living solutions, and to make building easier and less expensive.’’ 

Advisors Are Getting Onboard

Irving, said financial advisors are a critical part of helping clients plan for old age.

“The scope of work of financial advisors is expanding rapidly and the financial services industry is the only industry truly thinking outside of its own box,’’ he said.

“Advisors are now talking about health, kids, philanthropic objectives; they are asking clients do they want to keep working; they are asking about family histories and prospects for caregiving; they express interest and concern about the risks and costs of dementia.

“So, I encourage more of that; it’s important that people are realizing the potential of financial gerontology: and it’s critical to understand that one size doesn’t fit all. Advisors need to customize financial strategies by getting their clients’ whole picture,’’ Irving said.

 Irving said he is not a fan of target dates for life transitions because he thinks they are “a homogenized response to real need,” he said. “The truth is people have different needs, health circumstances and personal objectives. With technology advances, we can tailor strategies to meet those individual circumstances: Technology and the knowledge of gerontology together can elevate the effectiveness of financial services.’’ 

Intergenerational Living

Irving and the Milken Institute are part of the growing attention from think tanks and the media on where the increasingly long-lived elderly will live and what their housing will be like.

The New York Times recently published articles profiling The Villages in Florida, and on alternative housing for seniors in urban areas. Like Irving, the writer of the Times’s story expressed grave reservations at the prospect of living in an age-restricted, homogenous retirement development. A New York developer said she was not alone.

“You are not the only one,” AJ Viola, an entrepreneur working on a new housing approach for seniors, assured me when I told him about my memories of visiting my mother-in-law. “Every single person we talked to … I feel like the verbiage is, ‘I would rather die.’ How many times have folks said that to us?” the Times story said.

Irving, who is also bullish on rural areas being re-energized through entrepreneurial projects that include intergenerational housing for the elderly and younger residents, says these areas are easily navigable and less expensive than cities.

The challenge is to provide broadband to isolated parts of the country so all generations can be connected, in their personal lives and in work.

“With intergenerational living, we are more likely to have opportunities for new and longer work lives that can be joyous and meaningful,’’ Irving said.

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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