Dreaming of the perfect retirement community? Here are 14 to consider

Seniors are increasingly looking at the traditional nursing home as a last resort for their later years. Instead, a new generation of workers looks to retirement as a kind of hard-earned, long-term vacation. They are, justifiably, getting more choosy about where they want to spend their considerable retirement savings and last years.

If they bother moving out of their homes and communities, retirees nowadays want it to be for something better, something special. They look for communities that will keep them engaged and entertained. Personal connections are the most important, so if they leave old friends they want to move to a place where they can make new ones. They want to be able to bring their pets. They often want to be near -- but not too near -- loved ones.

And they want to be able to go out and do things, whether that's classes, prayers, golf or dining out. Mostly, they want a place that's attuned to their individual needs.

Here are 14 retirement communities with something special to offer:

Meadowood Retirement Community, Bloomington, Indiana
Indiana University is a leader in the trend of universities welcoming seniors to retire nearby and both enjoy and contribute to campus life. Retirees can choose to live in houses, apartments or eventually hospital beds. In addition to campus life, they can also enjoy a spa or wet bar.

Pinehurst, North Carolina
Many northerners retire to Florida only to find they don't like the hot weather, traffic, outrageous real estate prices and dearth of cultural activities. But they don't want to go back to winters, so they go halfway back, retiring in the Carolinas, where temperatures and property prices are milder.

Founded as a vacation resort, Pinehurst has 30 golf courses, a cute downtown and lots of cultural attractions. The town is within a day's drive to the Outer Banks, the mountains or Durham. The nearby Sandhills Center for Creative Retirement offers trips and classes.

Huckins Farm, Bedford, Massachusetts
This is one of a few dozen retirement communities around the country that cater to horse people. The Farm includes 164 homes and condos, an equestrian center, recreation center, pool, an apple orchard and lots of preserved land. It's small town New England, but close to Boston.

Silver Sage Village, Boulder, Colorado
Residents at Silver Sage have their own townhouses, but share a community center and get together for walks and exercise. It is one of a handful of co-housing developments specially geared towards seniors. Co-housing is a growing movement to build micro-communities that share common interests, instead of just isolated homes.

Silver Sage has a commitment to the environment and to what it calls being a "participatory community." It asks prospective members to fill out a reflective questionnaire, which asks about interest in group activities, recycling, learning and volunteer projects. One bedrooms go for $400,000 to $500,000.

Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts
Aging residents didn't want to leave this historic Boston neighborhood, so they got together and formed something like a senior citizens' commune. You pay a membership fee ($580 for singles, $780 for couples) and get household help (repairs and errands or grocery shopping), trips, classes and lectures. Plus, you get the chance to live in a lively community. Now the neighborhood is a model for aging-in-place programs around the country. And it attracts new residents who just want to be part of the special community.

Foxdale Village, State College, Pennsylvania
A group of local Quakers wanted to establish a non-profit retirement home that would be "based on Quaker values and the Quaker conviction that all people are to be treated with dignity and loving respect." Residents have to be over 65 and in good health when they move into one of the 148 apartments, which range from studios to two-bedrooms, on the 21-acre campus. Foxdale offers a continuum of care from there while encouraging independence, including classes at nearby Penn State.

Manhattan, New York
Lots of retirees want to ditch their cars -- either because it becomes difficult to drive or just too much of a hassle. Naturally, that's easier if you live in a dense city of other pedestrians. Manhattan, according to city-data.com, has the lowest car density in the country for big cities. A full 60% of residents don't have cars. That's led to a 24-hour reasonably safe subway system, abundant cabs and car-sharing services. Not to mention, there's just a lot to see and do on foot in the Big Apple.

Highland Green, Maine
Billed as an adult resort community, Highland Green on Maine's mid-coast near Freeport, offers a chance for retirees to live independently in new homes, but in a community of like-minded retirees. Plus, the community handles both indoor and outdoor maintenance. That may be appealing to a couple dreaming of retiring to Maine from somewhere else, but afraid of feeling isolated. The community has a golf course and club house, but what makes it really unique is its nature preserve, created by the developer as a compromise to get the project going and preserve the land. Residents see fox, beaver, deer and even porcupine.

RainbowVision, Santa Fe, New Mexico
As openly gay seniors start to retire, they don't want to have to go back to being secret about who they are. So, a string of gay retirement communities is opening up to serve their needs. RainbowVision plans more sites in Palm Springs, the Bay Area and in British Columbia. For now the Santa Fe location offers apartments and assisted-living rooms, a Billie Jean King fitness center and plenty of entertainment and comfort.

Your RV
Instead of picking one place, many retired couples hit the road in a recreational vehicle. They get to migrate to warm weather in the winter, mild in the summer and see all the sites in between. Some keep their homes; some don't bother. One in ten of those Americans aged 55 to 64 owns an RV, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. The group claims more than a million Americans live at least part of the year in their RVs.

The Gatesworth, St. Louis, Missouri
The Gatesworth is a luxury retirement community in the heart of the Midwest. The independent apartments range from 700 to 2,200 square feet and the community assets include a 104-seat theater, on-site bank, spa, gym with a heated pool, nightly happy hours and even dog-walking services (yes, they're dog-friendly, too).

Lake Chapala, Guadalajara, Mexico
An increasing number of Americans are retiring to Mexico. The reason? Mainly cost -- and that applies both to those who buy villas on the coast and those who live in modestly priced retirement homes. Many claim they can live comfortably on social security. Health insurance is just a few hundred dollars a year. Lake Chapala is an enclave of Americans; Guadalajara is reputed to have the largest expat community (which also includes Canadians). Living among local communities is cheaper. Technically, you can't buy land on the coast or borders, but effectively you can through a trust. And the dollar hasn't fallen as much against the peso as it has against the euro.

La Posada, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
La Posada is like a waterfront resort, but with access to medical care. A concierge physician is on call and there is a range of medical services, from assisted living to Alzheimer's programs. The waterfront facility has dining, a fitness center, bridge room, spa and wellness center and lots of activities. For those worried about leaving some money for their kids and not liking a place once they move in, La Posada has a program in which 90% of your deposit is refunded (in certain circumstances) if you decide to move out.

Your Neighborhood
After researching retirement communities, you may find the best retirement community for you is your own neighborhood. In fact, most people want to stay in their own homes when they retire. With a few modifications you can. On the simplest level, that can mean adding bathroom safety bars and replacing things that are hard to use with arthritic hands, like round door knobs or small light switches. Seniors who already use a walker or wheelchair or anticipate needing one may want to make sure they have everything accessible on the ground floor. Some remodelers also install elevators and outside ramps and widen doorways. These jobs have gotten so popular the National Association of Home Builders offers coursework to become a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist.

What might be paradise to one couple would be appalling to another. Even individuals will long for very different services and amenities at different stages of retirement. Don't try to plan too far out in the future, but pick the best place for you (and maybe your family) for the next ten years. And as the mix of retirement options expands and evolves, you'll likely have even more options in years to come.

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