Specialist in Issues of Midlife & Older Adults

Monthly Archives: September 2012

What are NORC’s?

NORC’s are “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities”. The term was originally coined in 1984 by Professor Michael Hunt of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin. He had noticed that a large apartment building in downtown Madison housed mainly older people who had migrated there for convenience – they could walk to stores, parks, theaters and doctors’ offices. He called this “naturally occurring retirement community” an example of “in-migration”.


Other types of NORC’s occur where there are already stable longtime communities of residents who are apt to stay in their locations and age in place together – this is called “aging in”.  I think what we are seeing in Marin is an example of “aging in”. Residents tend to love living here – the climate is fantastic, the mountain and views are hard to beat anywhere, the air is clean, the services are high quality, the arts are in evidence. Why go anywhere else if we can afford to stay here?


The third type of NORC’s have been defined as being examples of “out migration”. These cases happen often in rural communities where younger working people move, leaving the older folks behind. From what I’ve observed over the years, we have a bit of “out migration’ happening in Marin as well. Many aging parents tell me that their adult children cannot afford to live here in Marin or can’t find jobs here, so they have moved north, to the East Bay or out of state. Thus many older people here have no local family to care for them as they age.


NORC’s really got going originally in New York. The pioneer activist in the movement is Fredda Vladeck, a geriatric social worker who worked with the state and city of New York to garner matching funds from private agencies. The first NORC was born in a housing development called Penn South, in 1986. Penn South housed 5000 older people (of its 6200 residents) – most of whom were lifelong union organizers who had never married or, if they had married, never had children. So, they did not have the traditional circles of support.


At Penn South, the residents also did not trust social workers. They feared that the social workers would try to get them to move into nursing homes. After years of working to build trust, the community was thriving – full of renewed arts programs, activities, intergenerational bonding and mutual care. Members were all contributing their volunteer services. Further, the state and city funding paid for a variety of health services to be offered on-site. Visits to ER’s dropped dramatically as overall physical and emotional health and wellness increased. Isolation and depression decreased.


This “vertical NORC” model (in a high-rise) spread throughout New York and morphed to includeNORC WOW’s (NORC Without Walls). These NORC’s exist in demographic-based communities where members live in their own homes. Hundreds of NORC’s exist across the US now – there are many different iterations depending on the culture of each community and the members.


For example, here’s information on one thriving NORC Without Walls in St Louis:


Productively Aging: St. Louis’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Community


For more information about the history of NORC’s read this fascinating interview inDesigner/Builder magazine with Fredda Vladeck:


 NORC Blueprint: A Guide to Community Action .


Here’s a quote from Fredda:


What we’ve accomplished is about changing the discussion from long-term care to long-term living. It’s moving the mindset and recognizing that older adults, as old and as frail and as fragile as they are, have roles to fill in their community. It’s up to us to find those appropriate roles and recognize that it’s not just about putting in a service: it’s about addressing the quality of life of older adults.


There’s a major push right now among public policy folks in the aging and long term care world to do what’s called community-based care. I’m not sure exactly what that means. I think the larger question here is we need to be thinking about the role of older adults in communities and how they can continue to be valued contributors. At Penn South we told people in wheelchairs, who ordinarily would have been stuck in their apartments, that there was stuff they could do here to help this community and this program. We told them, bring your home care worker too. That’s fine. You have a role in this community and in this society, and our job is to help you realize your potential.



In Marin, we have naturally occurring retirement communities happening whether they are officially affiliated with the NORC movement or not. Alternative housing arrangements for seniors are cropping up all over, including here. They may include housing complexes with NORC’s, NORC’s Without Walls in neighborhoods, Villages (another neighbor helping neighbor model), or even CCRC’s Without Walls (Continuing Care Retirement Communities Without Walls). It is good to see a variety of choices. (See this recent article about CCRC’s Without Wall in the NY Times: A Choice of Community Care, in Your Own Home.)


With all of the creative energy in Marin and in the Bay area, I’m sure there will be many more community models emerging as we boomers continue to age. If you know of more examples in our area, please feel free to email me or post a comment. Thanks!


– Nancy Rhine, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with midlife and older individuals, couples and families. She is Mill Valley’s former Commissioner on the Marin County Commission on Aging and a passionate advocate for older members of our communities. You can reach her at nancyrhine@aol.com.