A NORC Can Make it Easier to Age in Place
Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities offer a wide range of workshops and activities that can help older adults stay in their homes
Spending time at home alone took a toll on my mom's health. My brother and I noticed early signs of mild cognitive decline. Her lifelines, two senior centers in her community, had closed due to the pandemic. She actually started one of the centers years ago and volunteered in the kitchen on Sunday mornings serving brunch to other older adults.
My mom turned 90 last year and my dad passed away about 10 years ago. Her circle of friends dwindled. My brother told me to contact a local NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community). NORCs are residential areas where people stay in the community, raise families, and retire.
My mom lives in the northwest Bronx, New York which is prime NORC territory since it has a large active older adult population.
"The idea is to keep people in their homes for as long as possible," says Bayla Butler, director of the Amalgamated Park Reservoir NORC which serves my mom's area.
"We bring programs to older residents so they can age in their own homes."
"We partner with housing, health care, social services, and other entities," Butler explains. "We bring programs to older residents so they can age in their own homes."
NORC put me in touch with a nurse at Visiting Nurse Service of New York, a NORC partner organization.
One partnership program sent a graduate student majoring in occupational therapy from Columbia University in New York City to my mom's apartment. She spent a couple of hours observing my mom move throughout the apartment and recommended grab bars in the bathroom. The cost for the visit: $0. The installation also cost nothing. My mom paid for the grab bar.
Helping Family Members
The nurse also recommended a gerontologist because my mom was seeing a family practitioner who had no experience caring for older adults. She told me about the Center for the Aging Brain at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, and also gave me information on several topics: a lecture on fall prevention, art classes (my mom used to teach art), financial and legal advice programs, and other activities in the neighborhood.
When my mom needed to fill out tax forms for her condo, a NORC administrator told me to have her come to the office and someone would help her fill out and notarize those forms. Again, there was no fee.
Initially, the nurse contacted me once a week; I believe she did so to make sure I was okay. Now, she checks in every month. My mom doesn't talk much on the phone. She has trouble hearing even with hearing aids. A good portion of her hearing is gone.
While I'm the main contact between NORC and my mom, NORC posts flyers about activities in the lobby of her building. The NORC workshops and talks are free. They also publish a newsletter, which lists upcoming events.
Keeping Care Cost Effective
My mom's NORC was one of the first funded in New York. Prior to overseeing the Amalgamated Park Reservoir NORC in the Bronx, Butler worked at one of the first NORCs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"Here in the Bronx, we have twenty-two buildings, one thousand eight-hundred apartments, and forty percent of the units house people ages sixty and over," Butler says. "We have a small staff with two social workers and an administrative assistant. Keeping people healthy and living in their homes for as long and safely as possible is our goal. It saves money, too."
Funding for NORC programs comes from government agencies, such as the Department for the Aging, and private organizations.
"NORC is a good example of an innovative approach to aging in place," says Emily Greenfield, professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work.
Her early research published in the Journal of Aging Studies focused on NORCs and aging in place. It's a topic she continues to study. Her latest research published this year in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy covers inter-organizational interactions in age-friendly communities.
"Historically, supports for aging populations are channeled through the health care system. It's more cost effective to have a program like NORC in place," says Greenfield. "The costs for health care for aging Americans is prohibitive for many. Some older adults do without. In the long run that ups the costs of care. NORC is community based and that community watches out for its residents."
'NORC works in part because it's flexible and not everyone uses it in the same way," Greenfield says. "Participants get out of their homes, interact, and socialize. You get to know your neighbors and have a connection to your community. And that flexibility allows people to take advantage of the different programs that appeal to them."
A Return to Normal After the Pandemic Lockdown
NORC, like other programs, took a hit during the pandemic. What didn't stop were calls and porch visits.
"During the pandemic, I got calls from Sarah and other NORC staff asking if I needed help with anything."
"When it was safe to do so, we'd call our members and meet on their porches or at a nearby park," Sarah Z. Levinson, manager of NORC St. Louis, says. "Everyone wore masks. These visits were essential for those who live alone."
Marge Fenster, age 85 and a retired teacher in St. Louis, agrees. "I'd get a phone call from Sarah asking if I'd like a visit," she says. "A few people would stop by outside. It's a good way to see friends, exchange opinions and ideas, and get together to talk."
Fenster joined NORC St. Louis a number of years ago. NORC St. Louis's annual membership is $35 for one person and $50 for a couple.
"Some of the programs are slowly returning," Fenster says, adding that she has participated in jewelry making classes and exercise programs.
"We've had ice cream socials where an ice cream truck comes to a few different buildings and NORC residents can sit outside and enjoy ice cream and conversations," Fenster says.
She's also had NORC volunteers help with yard work. "I provided the tools and bags, and they came and spiffed up the backyard."
A Multitude of NORC Perks
There are other benefits to NORC "When I go out to a restaurant with friends who are not members of NORC, I show my NORC membership card and the whole table gets a discount," Fenster says.
"My mom is active and likes to be around people," says Amy Fenster Brown, Marge's daughter, who also lives in St. Louis.
"As she ages, her network of friends changes and, thanks to NORC, grows," she continues. "I call her friends the 'widow brigade.' People who live alone want to go and do stuff. They want to stay in the neighborhood. The socialization is so valuable."
Emelda Harris, 89, another retired teacher in St. Louis, remembers filling out a questionnaire asking about her interests.
"Pre-pandemic, we had a lot of outings to museums, restaurants where I got to try new foods, concerts, exercise classes, lectures, and so many different activities," she says. "During the pandemic, I got calls from Sarah and other NORC staff asking if I needed help with anything."
She took advantage of volunteers, found through NORC, who helped with home repairs.
"A volunteer repaired a leaky faucet and installed ceiling fans in my home. All I had to do was buy the parts. There was no charge for fixing the faucet or installing the ceiling fans," Harris says.
"NORC is good about keeping in touch with its members. If you want to be busy, do things, visit places, and meet friendly people, NORC offers all that," she says. "I've lived in this community for twenty-six years and it's nice that I have this support in place."
Locating a NORC Near You
To find a local NORC, contact your state's Department for the Aging. NORCs are scattered throughout the country and are not in every state. If your state doesn't have a NORC, ask the department about other community services for older adults.