NORCs- what are they and how can they be useful?

Judith Davey

07/04/17

I tell people that I live in a NORC, but it looks just like a high-rise apartment building. It might not strictly fit the definition of a NORC, but it is a good conversation-opener.

A naturally occurring retirement community, or NORC (rhymes with “fork”), is a term used to describe a community/neighbourhood/residential building or area that has a large proportion of older residents (over 60 or 65) but was not specifically planned or designed to meet the needs of seniors living independently. NORCs may develop in three different ways:

• Ageing in place: people moved into a community/neighbourhood/residential building or area when they were younger and stayed there as they aged (this is the case for several people where I live);
• Emigration: older people remain in place as younger residents move out (this would apply to many suburbs in New Zealand);
• Immigration: older people move into an area, attracted by features which appeal to them as part of retirement living (climate, scenery, local amenities). In New Zealand, the Kapiti Coast, Tauranga and parts of North Auckland would be examples.
Retirement villages do not fit the definition as they do not occur naturally.

NORCS just emerge over the years, but can be identified by census figures on age structure. Once identified, these areas are likely to develop age-friendly features consistent with the needs and aspirations of the residents. These could be hobby, sporting and other groups, based on interests. They could be support services for people who need them, whether commercial or linked to government-provided health and welfare services. They could be age-friendly features related to local planning – footpaths, road crossings, transport facilities. Now that the New Zealand government, through the Office for Seniors, is showing an interest in the global Age Friendly Cities and Communities movement, perhaps some local NORCS could become pilot areas for the AFCC approach.

An alternative and more formal definition of a NORC is found in the USA. The Naturally Occurring Retirement Community-Supportive Services Program (NORC-SSP) developed in 1985 in New York City. These NORCs are buildings or neighbourhoods that have been retro-fitted to provide services for older people. They are often a single residential estate or tower block. These NORCs provide health care management and prevention programmes; social care services; help with transport, education and recreation on-site or close by. Each NORC will provide a special range of services linked to the needs of their residents; they may have a special ethnic or cultural flavour. For example, Jewish Home in New York, has a 160+ year history of serving Jewish elders and now has partnerships with several NORC communities to provide health and social services to tenants in apartment buildings.

The first NORC programme in the USA was established in 1986 at Penn South Houses, a ten-building 2,800-unit moderate-income housing cooperative in New York City. Since then, the model has spread to more than 25 states across the country. In recent research NORC-SSPs have been found to contribute to social connections, community participation and service access, and have helped older people to age in place, when this has been their preference.

All American NORCs have the aim of promoting older people’s access to services and reducing social isolation. They are often partnerships between housing entities and their residents, health and social service providers, government agencies, philanthropic organisations, and other community organisations. NORC residents are usually an essential part of the programme, contributing to development, governance, and service provision as volunteers (along the line of the “age-friendly” philosophy). Clearly this approach would work best in areas of social or cooperative housing.
Other NORCS may take the form of membership-based “villages”, as I mentioned in a previous blog.

Some NORC-SSPs, at least in New York, have been able to advocate successfully for funding from state and local governments. But lack of, or insufficient, funding makes such developments vulnerable, and, outside New York, many NORC-SSPs have proved relatively unstable as funding opportunities change and/or are withdrawn.
There are obviously NORCs and NORCs and different views of their success. One comment- “Some of the best retirement communities occur naturally.” Another – “NORCs can take many forms, ranging from vibrant communities that encourage seniors to stay engaged to sad places where the elderly live in isolation, fearful that they’ll die alone.” What makes the difference? Perhaps having the array of services which best fits the local population is the key to success and sustainability.

Little seems to be known about NORCs in New Zealand along the lines of the overseas literature, but they certainly exist. Could they be the basis for age-friendly communities as promulgated by the World Health Organisation? What kind of organisation and funding would be suitable here? How could they contribute to the wellbeing of older people?

 


Bedney, B., Schimmel, D. and Goldberg, R. (2007). Rethinking aging in place: Exploring the impact of NORC supportive service programs on older adult participants. Paper presented at the Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging, March 7–10, Chicago.
Bedney et al. 2007

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