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Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities Let Seniors Age in Place

Mercer County pilot project delivers the services of assisted living to apartment houses and neighborhoods with a concentration of retirees

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

retirement banner (flickr: Michael Wade)

Legislation that would create a pilot program to provide support services in communities with high concentrations of senior citizens has been approved by the Senate Health and Senior Services Committee and goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.

The bill (S-1796), would appropriate $250,000 for a pilot program in Mercer County to service “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities,” or NORCs, which are defined as contiguous areas in which at least 50 percent of households are headed by someone who is 60 or older. The communities usually are composed of seniors who have opted to stay in their homes and have become de facto senior communities and differ from traditional senior-designated communities because it was not built to house seniors, advocates say.

The bill requires that the housing fall under the low- and moderate-income guidelines used by the state affordable housing program. The money would be used to create a NORC at one or more apartment buildings, housing complexes, or defined geographical communities and provide social, healthcare, mental health, and other support services to residents.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), a sponsor of the Assembly version of the bill, said in a press release after the 6-0 committee vote on September 20 that the pilot would provide assisted-living type services to those who either cannot or do not want to move out of their homes.

“Not everyone wants to move into senior housing or an assisted-living facility. Many residents would rather stay in their homes, but need additional assistance to maintain their independence as they grow older,” said Gusciora. “This pilot program would allow these residents to stay in their homes and have the type of services they would benefit from in an assisted living facility delivered to them.”

NORCs are more than just housing, according to AARP New Jersey, which has developed a set of principles for what it calls “livable senior communities.” NORCs, the organization says, are part of a broader selection of potential housing that should be safe, accessible, and affordable and improve the health of residents.

Marilyn Askin, chief legal advocate for AARP New Jersey, told the committee that NORCS include the communities in which they exist -- including “the associated commercial, community, worship, transportation and health resources that the community relies upon.”

“Developing solutions that enable seniors to remain living at home for as long as safely feasible is in keeping with their preferences, promotes their physical and mental wellbeing, and is a promising solution to help deflect the significant financial costs of long-term care anticipated with the retirement of the 78 million baby boomers,” she said.

“The vast majority of older adults want to age in place, so they can continue to live in their own homes or communities," Askin continued. "As the older population grows, the degree to which it can participate in community life will be determined, in part, by how communities are designed.”

That means investing in those places where seniors already live, she said.

“A livable community is safe and secure, and provides affordable, appropriate housing; adequate transportation; and supportive community features and services,” she said. “Once in place, these resources enhance personal independence; allow residents to age in place; and foster residents’ engagement in the community’s civic, economic, and social life.

“Unfortunately, many communities present barriers that prevent older residents from participating fully in the life of the community and from accessing important services. As the population ages, the importance of community and workplace features that promote physical independence and enhance opportunities for community engagement for all residents becomes more apparent.”

Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), who abstained, questioned whether $250,000 would be enough to create a pilot program, but NORC supporters said that the model is based on leveraging many existing services and that the money would be used to bring those services together.

“We want to leverage existing services,” said Emily Greenfield, a professor of social work at Rutgers University. “This will allow us to connect the dots of existing services and encourage the provision of in-kind services.”

Singer also questioned why Ocean County, which has one of the state’s largest senior populations, was not chosen for the pilot.

The reason, said supporters, was Mercer’s proximity to the state Department of Human Services, making it easier to monitor its progress.

NORCs were initially developed by the Jewish Federation of North America, growing out of an effort in the 1980s to target services to seniors living in market-rate apartments in New York, according to the NORC Aging in Place Initiative website. The focus on the New York apartments, which came to be known as NORCs, became the foundation of a new community-based social service approach. According to the website, “tens of thousands of older New York residents are now aging in place with greater dignity, independence, and quality of life through City- and State-supported NORC-SSP programming.”

The program was then expanded and the JFNA has helped create 45 communities in 26 states. More than a dozen have been started in New Jersey.

"Each community is slightly different and each community has a slightly different story to tell," said Karen Alexander, director of eldercare services for United Jewish Communities of MetroWest. "In Parsippany we've reached over 1,000 people over the years, between the employment program, and social work assistance and home repairs."

During the September 20 hearing, Sen. Shirley Turner, one of the Senate sponsors of the bill, said it would allow the state to better manage scarce resources for seniors.

“It will allow seniors to age in place and there is no better place to age in than your own home,” she said. “With this pilot project, we can keep seniors in their homes longer by bringing the residents the services they need. It will save with Medicare costs and with Medicaid costs and if it is successful we can replicate it in other counties.”

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