In a recent blog post, I shared the results of an interesting study out of Washington State University that found that where you live can influence your lifespan. It looked at people’s gender, race, and education level, as well as locales’ walkability, socioeconomics, and working-age population and tied it to the number of centenarians in that location. The results of the study were rather surprising.
Relatedly, a recent study conducted in the U.K. looked at the impact that moving to a retirement community had on seniors’ health and longevity. British researchers from the Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) and the County Councils Network (CCN) looked at the overall wellbeing of people who live in a retirement community as compared to seniors who have remained in their own homes.
In the U.K., they define a “retirement community” as a development that has both independent living units as well as on-site care services, plus a wide variety of services and amenities on-site. Among England’s age 65 and older population, only 0.6 percent, or 75,000 Britons, live in a retirement community. (Compare that to the U.S. where around 5 percent of seniors live in some type of retirement community — from 55+ independent living communities to nursing homes.)
Healthier and happier seniors in retirement communities
Among the U.K. study’s findings:
- Retirement community residents spend up to 12 fewer days on average in the hospital due to unexpected accidents as compared to those in who remain in their own home.
This is of course an important issue even in the best of times since a visit to the hospital ups the chances of exposure to another illness or infection. It may be even more important during the pandemic when many hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients.
- Residents of retirement communities were also shown to be 75 percent more physically active than those who opted to “age in place” in their current home.
Physical activity is a key predictor of overall health and longevity. Staying fit and active improves seniors’ cardiovascular health, decreases depression and anxiety levels, and helps maintain a healthy body weight, among other benefits.
- Retirement community residents reported 23 percent less anxiety than their non-community-living counterparts.
Seniors are less likely to report feeling anxiety, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing it. Research has found that seniors suffer from stress and anxious feelings at the same rate as other adult age demographics. Again, this is an especially timely issue amid the pandemic when anxiety levels are higher for nearly everyone — a topic I recently wrote about.
- Eighty-seven percent of retirement community residents reported that they “never” or “hardly ever” felt lonely after making their move into the community.
Loneliness and social isolation are not only detrimental to seniors’ mental health, they can actually have serious consequences for their physical health. In fact, loneliness has been referred to as the “silent killer” as it increases seniors’ risk for depression, dementia, and premature death. The social aspects of living in a retirement community, and the interpersonal connections formed, are among the big draws for many senior living residents.
Applicability to American retirement communities?
Retirement communities in the United States are somewhat different from those in the U.K. For example, some U.S. senior living communities simply offer age 55+ residents independent living with some additional amenities (like a pool or clubhouse) or services (like exterior maintenance).
Other senior living communities in the U.S. offer more robust services. Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs or life plan communities), for example, provide residents with a full continuum of on-site healthcare services, as well as a variety of amenities — similar to the U.K. retirement community model.
The findings of the U.K. study may have applicability to all U.S.-based retirement communities, though there are perhaps the most similarities between the U.K.’s retirement community model and our CCRC model since both offer residents on-site care services.
U.S. study on CCRC residents’ wellbeing
Other studies by American researchers on the health and wellbeing specifically of seniors who opt to live in a CCRC have had similar findings as the U.K. study.
For example, the 2018 Age Well Study conducted by the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, in conjunction with Northwestern University, found that CCRC residents report being happier and healthier than their non-CCRC-dwelling counterparts in numerous ways. The study found that:
- CCRC residents tend to have greater emotional, social, physical, intellectual, and vocational wellness than a demographically similar control group.
- CCRC residents report significantly more healthy behaviors than the other “community-dwelling” seniors (i.e., those who do not live in a retirement community). This extends beyond just exercise to diet and other healthy lifestyle choices.
- Over two-thirds of the CCRC residents surveyed said that moving to a CCRC “somewhat or greatly improved” their social wellness, a concept which encompasses a person’s sense of connectedness and belonging within their community.
- CCRC residents who live in communities with entrance fees had lower levels of depression, better diets, and better overall health than seniors who live in rental communities.
- Residents who live in CCRCs with 300 or more residents reported higher life satisfaction, better mood, more positive perceptions of aging, less stress, and higher perceived control over their lives, as compared to the control group.
The many benefits of choosing a CCRC
The research continues to mount that living in a retirement community, and especially a CCRC, is good for seniors’ health. With fewer hospital stays, more physical activity, and less anxiety and loneliness, the U.K. study suggests that CCRC residents may gain benefits to both their minds and bodies. This bolsters the outcomes of several other studies on senior living communities in the U.S. and abroad, including the Age Well Study.
The lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have perhaps driven these research findings home even further. We’ve been reminded just how important it is to remain physically active and socially connected to others — two crucial benefits that CCRCs are able to offer their residents. The pandemic has shone a light on not only the resiliency of CCRC residents, but also on the excellent work these communities are doing to care for their residents.
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