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4 Ways to Keep Your Cultural Traditions in Retirement

Explore the options to find the best fit for your lifestyle


Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report

Culture means different things to different people, but no matter who you speak to, there’s agreement it’s important. In fact, over the last 40 years there have been numerous studies showing that culture actually shapes happiness.

That’s why so many retirement communities emphasize cultural menus and programming for residents.  As Americans age, it’s critical to uphold cultural connections, especially when remaining at home is no longer possible. The challenge then becomes finding a retirement community that’s the right “fit” culturally.

For some, finding a cultural fit is top of mind. When 48-year old Matthew Wilkinson’s health began to decline and he could no longer live on his own, his only choice was a traditional retirement community. As an HIV positive gay, he felt like a fish out of water. “It wasn’t a good fit,” he said.

So, when Stonewall Gardens in Palm Springs, Calif., one of the few LGBT-focused communities in the country, opened, Wilkinson made the move. “I am more comfortable here, which is incredibly important,” he said. “When I get lab work done, all I have to say is ‘I have good numbers’ and people understand. Living through the AIDS crisis was a cultural issue for our community and everyone here knows what it means and is supportive.”

For others, like Barbara Neevel and her husband Jim, health care, not culture, was top of mind when selecting a community. Still, for Jim, whose grandparents migrated from the Netherlands, the cultural opportunities at  Brookdale Senior Living’s Freedom Village in Holland, Mich., are important. Jim has fond memories of his grandmother baking vetbollen (fat ball) and enjoys when the traditional Dutch dishes of his childhood are added to the menu. But the food isn’t all he’s come to love.

“One of the important benefits of living in a retirement community is the chance to interact with other people’s cultural traditions. It’s a wonderful chance to get to know people. You learn so much about each other,” he said.

“We are not full of like minds. We all have different religions and political beliefs,” Barbara Neevel added. “We discuss, differ, and respect. We share different viewpoints and respect one another, and we grow by hearing about others’ experiences.”

Here are four ways to maintain your cultural community in retirement:

1.  Find Out What’s Available

When it comes to culture, there are two general types of retirement communities. In heterogeneous communities like Freedom Village at Holland, people from a variety of backgrounds with varied interests come together. On the other hand, homogeneous communities cater to one group of people with some sort of commonality.

“There was such a need for a community with an LGBT focus,” said Stonewall Garden’s Lauren Kabakoff, “but I hear all the time, ‘I had no idea there was anything like this.’” Stonewall Gardens is an example of a homogeneous community, but there are others, including those that cater to Jewish, Asian and African-American communities.

According to Dan Willis, senior vice president of partner services with A Place for Mom, some communities even cater to interests — attracting former chefs, artists and sports enthusiasts. “We sometimes see communities that organically find a niche amongst their residents. Others develop a niche consciously and market to that group,” he said.

Culture plays a critical role in dementia care, too. Commonwealth Senior Living, with locations throughout Virginia, offers a memory care program that often relies on cultural dishes and music to “bring out the person behind the dementia,” explained program director Ashley Hurley. Its Dining Delight program explores the expressive benefits of food.

Hurley reaches out to family members for residents’ favorite recipes and then they make these dishes. “Sometimes it sparks a memory, and we learn more about them, which is so important,” she said.

2. Honor Your Roots

So many older Americans have been cultural crusaders, fighting for freedoms we all enjoy today. Ruth Robbins, who fled Austria in 1941, has fond memories of her family celebrating Passover with a Seder (a traditional Passover dinner and service) here in America. “It was very wonderful,” she said. “I still remember my granddaughter stepping into Matzah ball soup when she was two-years old. She is now 29 and going for her Ph.D., but we still laugh about it.”

Robbins, who now lives at Brookdale Senior Living’s Battery Park in Manhattan, continues to celebrate her Jewish traditions, attending the community’s Seder every year. Battery Park is a heterogeneous community with residents from different faiths and backgrounds, and that suits Robbins.

“It wasn’t my goal to be with only Jewish residents,” she said. “Being a Holocaust survivor and being Jewish, I feel very lucky that my community helps me continue my traditions.”

Just like Robbins, Stonewall Gardens resident Al Prentice is proud of his culture. He recently celebrated his 80th  birthday with a 10-day gay cruise where he wore his Stonewall Gardens ‘Gay, Gray, Hooray!’ T-shirt.

“A lot of younger gay guys came up to me, hugged me and said, ‘Thank you. If it wasn’t for you we couldn’t be on this cruise, or serve in the military, or marry.’ It brought tears to my eyes, but it made me feel good,” Prentice said.

3. Share Your Interests

In communities like Brookdale Battery Park, where there are 200 residents with different backgrounds and cultural traditions, programming becomes a critical tool to support culture. “If it’s special to our residents, it becomes special to us,” said Whitney Glandon, director of programming. “If we don’t already have it on the program schedule, then I do my best to incorporate it in.”

Resident Sondra Green loves meeting new people and exploring different cultures. “Whitney makes it possible. It’s worth being in a place with like-minded souls. Religion doesn’t matter here. I have friends who are African American and Indian — all faiths from all over make this place exceptional,” she said.

When it comes to continuing her cultural interests, Green takes the initiative. As a former voice and acting professor at Vassar College, she continues to teach cultural classes including Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. If something you’re interested in isn’t being offered, “just ask,” she said.

4. Stay Connected 

Green is busy, but she doesn’t spend all her time at Brookdale Battery Park. She also volunteers at a local high school where she helps students improve their communication skills.

For the Neevels, staying connected with their local community is also important. Being within walking distance of Hope College allows them to support the basketball program, attend concerts and lectures, volunteer with students and faculty and participate in community events.

From the moment we’re born, culture plays an important role in our lives, one that doesn’t diminish as we age. And from independent living to memory care, no matter what type of community you’re looking for, explore your cultural options. You may be surprised by what’s out there.

By Kimberley Fowler
Kimberley Fowler is a writer and editor dedicated to improving seniors' lives through education, activism, volunteerism and community programs.  View Kimberley's website or connect with her on Twitter @kimsfow and LinkedIn.@kimsfow

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