Real Estate

‘Natural’ Retirement Communities: An Idea That Works

Some retirement communities are planned, others just happen. Urban planners sometimes refer to the latter as NORC: “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.” They have emerged as an attractive way for seniors to successfully age at home by taking advantage of community support services and volunteer programs.

It is estimated that there are thousands of these naturally occurring retirement communities in the United States, and that approximately 27 percent of our seniors live in them. So what are the NORCs?


These are communities or neighborhoods where residents have lived and aged together long enough for a naturally occurring retirement community to evolve. Residents have aged instead of living in their homes for several decades, or older adults have migrated to the same community where they intend to spend the rest of their lives.

NORC is a demographic term used to describe a community that was not originally designed for seniors, but has grown naturally to 40-65% of its residents over the age of 60. These communities were originally built for young adults and were never intended to meet the particular health and social service needs of older people.

The term NORC was first coined in the 1980s by Michael Hunt, a professor of urban planning. NORCs were originally identified in urban settings, but are now found in all geographic locations. They are typically small in design, spanning a few square miles with a base of 1,000 to 3,000 people. They can be as small as a city apartment building or as large as a suburban neighborhood with single-family homes.

NORCs can be classified into three types:

  • Classic NORC: This is a single-age apartment building, a housing complex with several buildings under common management, or several grouped apartment buildings.
  • Neighborhood-based NORC: This is a neighborhood made up of ages of one and two family homes.
  • Rural NORC: This is a large geographic area with a low population density, generally made up of one- and two-family households.


NORCs are privately developed and managed and are relatively new, so there is no centralized list of programs. The best place to find NORC information is online. Here are some good sources to help determine if there is an existing model that suits your community:

  • The United Hospital Fund at
  • Agencies on Aging in many states have information on NORCs

Each NORC is different and focuses on local needs and individual communities. Funding, staffing, and services should reflect a specific community, and staff may consist of full- and part-time employees and numerous volunteers. NORCs may be largely supported by member dues of $ 500 or more per year, or seniors may pay little or nothing, with most of the support coming from local foundations, charitable agencies, and government funds. The key requirement is a healthy mix of public and private funds.

Older people must play a central role in the development of the NORC program. They are clients with diverse needs and interests, and residents with a rich network of relationships, knowledge and experience. Effective programs will enable older people to take on new roles in their communities as project leaders and developers. There is a growing understanding on the part of a large number of older people that their participation is necessary in the construction of their later lives. Retirement can extend from 25 to 30 years, and without a community support system, older people are at risk of health problems and isolation.


Some organizations and local governments have brought together social services, healthcare, transportation, and residents to develop a NORC Support Services Program (NORC-SSP). This program receives financing from contributions from the private sector; charitable donations; membership fees or activities for residents; and federal, state, and local grants. NORC-SSPs directly serve seniors in naturally occurring retirement communities and can provide:

  • Social work case management
  • Transport
  • Mental health services
  • Social and cultural events
  • Home care
  • Grief support
  • Foods
  • Home repair and maintenance
  • Exercise classes
  • Continuing education programs


There is another type of community that has evolved and can be confused with a NORC; but based on the concentrated percentage of older people who should be called NORC, these communities are instead called neighborhood villages. These communities are grassroots movements that provide services and programs for their aging population. Some villages provide members-only services and programs that pay annual membership dues, while others charge nothing for services. Some set a minimum age for membership. Everyone relies heavily on neighborhood volunteers. The services provided can be:

  • Transport
  • Social and educational programs
  • Friendly visits or phone calls
  • Assistance with home repairs and maintenance.

Neighborhood villages face constant challenges with funding, with some charging annual membership dues. Others seek funding from other sources. The neighborhood’s first village was organized in Boston, Massachusetts in 2001 and is called Beacon Hill Village.


Naturally occurring retirement communities are the new alternative to aging in the neighborhood where you raised your family and made lifelong friends. The options for organizing this type of community may seem daunting and complex, but the underlying principle is simplicity: Neighbors take care of neighbors in a close-knit community.

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