Finding the perfect niche

“I felt so alone,” says Gloria Donadello. “After my partner died, if I didn’t have the RainbowVision community to help me through that time, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I have very little family left.”

Donadello is an 82-year-old lesbian. She was one of the first residents at RainbowVision, a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender majority community with a 30% “allied” or heterosexual population, in Santa Fe. “As soon as I moved to RainbowVision Santa Fe, it felt like home with people who shared my values. I have so many friends. And the food is pretty good, too!” the spry octagenarian tells Long-Term Living.

Ten years ago, no one could predict the power baby boomers would wield in changing where Americans spend their retirement years. While the percent of niche long-term care housing is low (less than 1%, according to experts), that is changing and changing fast. “The sheer critical mass of baby boomers and current retirees is fueling the demand for niche housing,” says Andrew J. Carle, assistant professor and director, assisted living/senior housing administration at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. It is the only university in the country that offers both undergraduate and graduate concentrations in senior housing administration (and will soon be offering a master’s degree in senior housing administration, another first.)

Carle likens the proliferation of niche housing to the explosion of the Coke brand. When Coke was first introduced in 1886, there was only one type. Now, because there is a market for it, Coke is available in 13 different flavors worldwide.

“Every decade boomers have existed, they’ve exploded the portfolio of whatever products were in demand,” Carle says. And because of that demand, niche assisted living has developed for recreational vehicle enthusiasts, Native Americans, Asians, people who enjoy cruising, wines, and two of the fastest growing niches—gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBTers), and university-based retirement communities (UBRCs). There is even a group of nudists in Pascal County, Florida, considering the feasibility of building a nudist assisted living facility in or near a current nudist community so they will not have to eschew their lifestyle as they age for “the textile world.”

Gloria Donadello, 82, with her Papillion, Billy, says living at RainbowVision in Santa Fe is the “nicest and most comfortable place to be” as a lesbian with assisted living needs

“With 78 million boomers who control 70% of the wealth in this country, there is enough of any number of groups to warrant looking at a senior housing model for them,” Carle says.


Among the fastest growing niche markets is senior housing for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) individuals. “This makes sense,” Carle says, “because somewhere between 5 to 10% of the population is comprised of these lifestyles.” Most of the residences for GLBTers have opened in the last 10 years. He estimates there are at least a dozen GLBT assisted living facilities with more on the way. Residents at RainbowVision in Santa Fe can dine in the Truman Capote Dining Room and work out at the Billy Jean King Fitness Center (the tennis champ herself uses the facility). “They are a neat group. My favorite thing on the activities calendar is Drag Queen Bingo night,” Carle says. RainbowVision Properties, Inc., is planning to open another GLBT community in Palm Springs as well as the San Francisco Bay area and Vancouver, British Columbia, with Plum Living Properties.

Rendering of Fountaingrove Lodge breaking ground this winter and opening in 2010 for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents. The CCRC will have 142 units for independent, assisted living, and employee housing
Andrew J. Carle, assistant professor, George Mason University

Besides RainbowVision Properties, Inc., Aegis Senior Living in Washington is about to complete its environmental impact study to open Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa, California, in the autumn of 2010, according to Wes Winter, senior marketing director. Aegis hopes this will be its flagship GLBT community. According to Winter, it will be the first CCRC for GLBTers in the country. The Sonoma Valley residence will be comprised of 148 units–100 for independent living (50 of which already have deposits on them), 36 assisted living units with one-third of those devoted to Alzheimer’s and memory-impaired residents, and 12 units providing affordable housing for employees. Twenty percent of the assisted living units will be set aside for lower income residents. “We know we will have younger residents who may be suffering from HIV or breast cancer, and often these folks have already spent down,” Winter says.

Fountaingrove Lodge was born when a group approached Aegis about building a GLBT assisted living facility in Santa Rosa. The facility has been received with open arms by local government which, Winter says, looks forward to Fountaingrove Lodge residents volunteering in the community and sitting on city government boards. “Personally, as a gay man, I remember in my late teens and early 20s sitting around in an old flat with madras blankets hanging on the wall and making jokes with my friends about where we would age,” Winter relates. “We thought of buying a nursing home for all of us. We laughed about it, but there was a serious note of uncertainty about our future, especially if our families had disowned us. That’s why opening Fountaingrove Lodge is tremendously important to me.” Carle agrees. “We need to add even more of these communities. It’s a classic example that doing what’s right for people is also good business.”


Another “product” filling a growing niche is university-based retirement communities or UBRCs. “University-based retirement communities” is a term Carle coined to describe assisted living facilities associated with a college or university. “There was no definition of what a ‘university-based retirement community’ was, so I created a definition and criteria that have been widely adopted by the profession and for consumers looking for this type of housing.”

In order to be a UBRC under Carle’s model, a facility has to meet five criteria:

  • It must be within a mile of the core campus.

  • It must have a documented financial relationship between the university and the provider so it gives both a vested financial interest in its success.

  • It must formalize, in writing, programs that are two-directional; not only must the retirees have access to the campus, but the students must have access to the retirees. Being intergenerational is a unique aspect of UBRCs.

  • It must provide a full continuum of care (independent, aAssisted, Alzheimer’s and/or skilled nursing care), not just independent living.

  • At least 10% of the residents must have a connection to the school whether as alums or retired faculty. This ensures the first four criteria are accomplished.

Carle estimates there are about two or three dozen UBRCs open, including at Notre Dame, Penn State, Cornell, Stanford, University of Alabama, Duke, University of Florida, Furman University, University of Michigan, and The University of Virginia. One is also being built at Carle’s school, George Mason University. “There are 4,400 institutions of higher learning in this country,” Carle says. “Even if 10% have one of these, that’s 440 communities. That’s bigger than Sunrise Senior Living. So you’re talking about a sub-industry that would be larger by itself than the largest senior housing provider in the industry.”

Twenty-nine percent of baby boomers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Carle. Seventeen percent of their parents have a college degree or higher, many using the GI bill after World War II to get it. “So, you have these two highly educated demographics,” Carle says. “Guess what they want to do when they retire? Not play golf; they want to continue to learn.” Many alumni have strong ties to their alma mater. They send their children there, they hold season tickets to sporting events, they stay involved in alumni activities. UBRCs are also attractive to retiring tenured professors who have known no other life outside the confines of an academic setting. The first two UBRCs were founded in the 1980s by the retiring university presidents of Iowa State and Indiana University.

Wes Winter, Fountaingrove Lodge

What’s in it for the college or university? Carle cited a study that after 2011 the number of traditional college-age students begins to drop and schools are looking at excess capacity. “I’m telling university presidents they need to look at recycling their old customers. Alums will have money, so there is solid profit potential.”

On the road again…

Life “on the road” is never-ending for a subculture of people who live, and want to retire, in their recreational vehicles (RVs). The 36,000-member Escapees Club feels as strongly about their RVs as others feel about their retirement homes, Carle says. “These people are really passionate about their independence and life on the road.” he says. Carle visited one of the first RV retirement parks, Rainbow’s End Escapees CARE Center (Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees), in Livingston, Texas, about three years ago. “Livingston might be considered the middle of nowhere for most of us,” he says. “Getting there I was driving past goats in peoples’ yards!”

Livingston may be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s about smack-dab in the middle of the country, not far off Interstate 10, the main interstate that slices the country from east to west. To an RVer, Interstate 10 is “their backyard” and as important an artery as their jugular vein. Rainbow’s End has 42 RV sites with wheelchair ramps. “You can pull up your RV, and for $800 a month, you get three meals served in the main recreation center, enjoy daily activities with a full-time activities director, have laundry service, housekeeping, and transportation,” Carle says. “The CARE Center contracts for licensed healthcare services, including an Alzheimer’s area. It has everything any other licensed assisted living community has.” The residents pay extra for nursing care.

One of several independent living “cottages” to be built at Fountaingrove Lodge, Santa Rosa, California

And because the RVers are a community, many take up the CARE Center’s offer of volunteering their services for a month in return for a month’s free parking site. “There is a waiting list of volunteers, and they have a problem getting volunteers to leave!” Carle says. Escapees who cannot volunteer are asked for a donation of $50 or $60 or the “cost of one tire.” They’re happy to do it because they know the center will be there when they need it. “This is another example of a retirement community preserving a culture,” Carle explains. “The RV is their independence. They know if they want to hit the road again, they can.” Carle predicts the boomers currently riding Harleys will trade them in for RVs as they age, fueling the need for more RV parks like Rainbow’s End.

The arches of RainbowVision’s clubhouse, El Centro. The Castro on the second floor houses the assisted living residences

Asian influence

As one approaches the main entrance to Aegis Gardens, Freemont, California, the front door is flanked by two stone lions. You will not find the number “4” anywhere in the facility. You will not see the color blue anywhere. The interior and exterior design incorporates the principles of feng shui. All of the staff speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or Japanese. Why? Because Aegis Gardens is an assisted living facility marketed to Asian Americans who believe lions are good luck, the number “4” signifies death, the color blue is undesirable, and life is more in harmony when feng shui principles are applied to design.

“Why should an 84-year-old Asian-American woman living in the San Francisco Bay area have as her only choice assisted living room 144 with blue walls?” Carle asks rhetorically. “She shouldn’t, and because of this community, she doesn’t have to.”

Besides boomers’ demands for choice behind the proliferation of niche assisted living markets, Carle agrees the more open-mindedness of Americans to accept different lifestyles and cultures is helping the niche movement. “George Mason University is ranked first by the Princeton Review as the most diverse university in the nation,” says Carle (there are students from more than 135 countries at the Washington, D.C.- area institution). “We teach our students to celebrate our diversity, not hide it. The same needs to be done for senior housing moving forward.”

Native Americans

In Big Sky Country on a scenic hill overlooking the Tongue River Valley, sits the 40-unit, 48,000-square-foot Heritage Living Center in Ashland, Montana. It was built with monies from Soaring Eagle, a public charity for the Northern Cheyenne. The front entrance faces east, observing a Cheyenne tradition of greeting Maheo, the Creator, each morning at sunrise. A visitor will pass the Sitting Man Library, the Bitteroot Wing Corridor, and the Red-Tail Hawk Room. Howard Terpning Indian prints grace the walls along with the Wall of Living Memories hung with memorial plaques. While the 6-year-old facility surrounds its Cheyenne elder residents with temporal reminders of their culture, the facility’s name, “Heritage” Living Center is actually what the Cheyenne tribe is most proud of. The Cheyenne, according to Carle, pass their culture down orally–from elder to child. If elders were shuttled away from where they lived the majority of their life to an assisted living facility miles away, there would be no way for them to interact with the younger generation and their culture would die. According to Carle, the Heritage Living Center was not only built right next to a reservation, but incorporated a preschool. “Now, every day, the kids and elders interact and they can pass along their history.”


The American Geriatric Society discovered four years ago that cruise ships only cost $11 more a month than assisted living. “We’re seeing evidence the future will include an ‘S.S. Assisted Living’” Carle admits.

Eighty-eight year old Bea Muller has been living on the Queen Elizabeth 2 since 2000 and spends $100,000 a year to sail to 41 cities in 25 countries. Her “assisted-living” choice has been covered by numerous national media. “Most cruise ships have a ‘Bea Muller,’” Carle says. On the high end of cruising, ResidenSea, a management company offering luxury properties on land and at sea, has introduced “The World,” a ship where, for around $5 million, retirees can buy a luxury apartment or studio apartment and live onboard while touring the world. “When you think about it, cruise ships already have the hospitality portion of assisted living, as well as physicians and a hospital. They just need to add nurses’ aides who can provide assistance to individuals throughout their day,” Carle says. (Though they likely could not offer skilled nursing or Alzheimer’s care.)


Carle says the challenge of “putting new products” on the shelf lies squarely on the shoulders of the long-term care industry. “Baby boomers are simply not interested in anything vanilla, boring, or generic,” he says. “They’ve gotten their way throughout their lives and have the critical mass and purchasing power to demand more of the same when they retire. It’s up to the long-term care industry to meet those demands.”

Andrew J. Carle is Assistant Professor and Director of the assisted living/senior housing administration at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. He can be reached at (703) 933-9131 or

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Long-Term Living 2008 September;57(9):18-24

Topics: Articles