Retired senior couple smiling while having breakfast together

Senior living means many different things to many different people, but most recently, it means an active and independent lifestyle.

Our concept of senior living is a relatively modern and uniquely American construct. Generations ago, intergenerational households were common; elders lived with their adult children and grandchildren. This model was the standard, and it's still common in much of the world today.

However, in America, changes in family structure and increasing wealth led to a revolution in senior living throughout the 20th century. New options for seniors centered more around their needs rather than the necessities of the day. This evolution is ongoing, and we're continuing exciting, new trends in what senior living is and what it can be.

What Is Senior Living?

Senior living today is a broad concept, incorporating a diverse range of seniors as well as the amenities and services they desire. Historically, before modern suburbs and metropolitan centers, senior living was born out of practicality and necessity. When elders were no longer able to perform physical labor, they often transitioned into roles that involved preserving history within a culture. Their needs for food, shelter, clothing, and care were satisfied by younger generations within the community.

This practice continued for most of human history until industrialization and urbanization radically changed societies on a global scale. These changes were most dramatic in the period after WWII, in which Americans were moving to the suburbs and seniors were moving into newly created senior living communities.

The Senior Living Community

Senior living communities can be tricky to define, but generally, they're communities of adults over the age of 55 who share access to a range of amenities or services. Traditionally, they involve some level of care for residents as they age. This can be as minimal as concierge or cleaning services or it can be intensive medical and therapeutic care in the case of a “nursing home.” Communities with more minimal medical or care services are often referred to using the term “independent senior living.”

On the other hand, an active adult (or 55+) community typically offers few if any services like this. Instead, it's more like a resort. These communities have their origins in Florida in the interwar period. They were advertised to seniors living in the north as respites from cold winters and polluted city air. It was in the period following WWII that two important inventions sparked the boom in active adult communities that continues to this day.

Changes in Senior Living

By the middle of the 20th century, America’s urban centers were becoming overcrowded and polluted due to industrial production and increasing numbers of automobiles on the road. Many with the means to do sought an escape from dreary concrete-covered cities, both for their health and peace of mind. This is when the modern concept of a suburb began to take hold.

With increased automobile usage, it was no longer necessary to live close to city centers and it was easier to visit far-flung family and friends. Young families began moving just outside of major cities, drawn by new homes, good schools, and clean, tree-lined streets.

With the same desire for a life less-cramped and noisy, seniors began looking towards the south and west. Retirement, pensions, and grown children shifted seniors’ priorities, and they were able to focus on their own needs and wants. Often these desires involved more sunshine, better weather, and the ability to spend their golden years among like-minded neighbors of a similar age.

Del Webb, a pioneer in the world of active adult communities, recognized this and built Sun City, a community for seniors just outside of Phoenix. Up until this time, there was one major hurdle: the summer heat.

This leads us to our second major development that made the modern senior living community possible: air conditioning. Though air conditioners were “invented” some years ago, they were bulky, expensive, and not very practical. Technological advancements and manufacturing brought affordable and effective air conditioners to the masses in the late 1940s. This turned entire regions of the country from winter getaways into places people could comfortably live year-round. This allowed visionaries like Del Webb to start building active adult communities in Arizona, Florida, and other Sun Belt states that would have been considered undesirable in the decades before.

Senior Living Into the 21st Century 

New ways of thinking, increasing middle-class wealth, and new technologies propelled senior living through the 20th century and into modern times. Advances in medical technologies have not only prolonged life but increased its quality. Independent senior living is now a viable option, with seniors requiring less care as they age.

In the last 50 years, there has been what could be described as an arms race in active adult communities, with each new neighborhood offering bigger, better, and more expansive amenities to attract homebuyers. Once a few swimming pools, shuffleboards, and maybe a nine-hole golf course were considered a pretty good deal for community members. Now, we see professionally-designed championship golf courses, luxurious restaurants and ballrooms, and pools that take their cues from the finest resorts.

In recent years, we’ve also seen smart home technology play an important role in senior living communities. Once a thing of science fiction, video calling is now an everyday convenience, making it easy to keep in touch with loved ones or “visit” a doctor remotely.

Smart home automation enables seniors with limited mobility to still manage their homes, allowing them to live independently where it wouldn't have been possible even a few years ago. Also, advances in smart home energy efficiency make it more affordable than ever for seniors to do so. As the enormous baby boom generation enters retirement, technology giants are busy at work developing further smart home tech that will further contribute to seniors’ ability to lead comfortable, active, independent, and healthy lives in senior living communities.  

It's fascinating to explore just how far we’ve come in a short time. A few generations ago, senior living largely meant home care in an often crowded intergenerational household. Today, it's as vibrant as the broader senior generation. If recent years are any indication, we’ll be seeing no shortage of exciting developments in senior living.