Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities: What Works Best to Support Older Adults to Age in Place?

Older adults overwhelmingly want to age in their own homes. But many are left with little choice when their ability to do so safely and independently is compromised by loneliness, social isolation, declining health or reduced income.

Despite the challenges that can occur with aging, we do know that many older people live in the community often clustered together in buildings or neighbourhoods, known as naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs for short.

“By being around other older adults and creating a shared sense of community, NORCs help alleviate concerns like loneliness or a lack of social engagement,” explained Dr. Paula Rochon, senior scientist and founder of the Women’s Age Lab at Women’s College Hospital. “Within a NORC there is an opportunity to deliver onsite social supports and health services in efficient and creative ways, helping residents age at home – where they want to be.”

Although more older adults in Ontario live in NORCs than long-term care and retirement homes combined, their potential remains unrealized because little is known about how to successfully create, implement and sustain supportive service programs in NORCs.

To address this issue, Women’s Age Lab, working with partners including OpenLab and the recently launched NORC Innovation Centre at the University Health Network, the City of Toronto, and the City of Barrie, have been awarded a multi-million dollar grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Their research will focus on identifying new solutions to promote healthy aging at a population-level within NORCs.

This research initiative will work to identify which NORC sites are best positioned to benefit from supportive services, and what factors would promote or hinder their successful implementation. “For instance, we know that most older adults living in NORCs are women, and that women have unique needs as they age. They are more likely to live alone, report loneliness and have lower incomes. All factors that impact their health and likelihood of aging in place,” says Dr. Rachel Savage, scientist at Women’s Age Lab. “As a result, to be effective, it will be critical for our work to incorporate an equity lens”.

This funding will also allow for an innovative approach, where older adults will have a voice and choice over the supports that will help them age in place. “Our strategy is innovative in the sense that it brings a multidisciplinary team together, while also involving the residents to guide the program development and to gather their feedback to what is working and what is not,” says Dr. Shoshana Hahn-Goldberg, scientist at the NORC Innovation Centre.

Through its research Women’s Age Lab and its partners will gain an understanding of what works, in which circumstances, and how. By developing practical tools, this project will fill important knowledge gaps to support the spread and scale of supportive services in NORCs across the country and elsewhere. NORCs have considerable potential to support older adults as they age in place. The time to invest in this area of research and implement evidence-based services and supports is now.

Learn more about Women’s Age Lab’s work here.

National Institute on Ageing. Pandemic Perspectives on Long-Term Care: Insights from Canadians in Light of COVID-19. 2021. (accessed October 12, 2021).

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