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Photos by Ross Mason

Sagewood, located in north Phoenix is one of several resort- style retirement communities opening in the Phoenix and Tucson areas.

Sagewood is a northeast Phoenix retirement community with a campus occupying 85-plus spacious acres of prime desert terrain.

Among other amenities, Arte offers residents a state-of-the-art movie theater complete with a concession bistro and plush chairs.

There are several upscale retirement communities in the Tucson Foothills including the Forum at Tucson, which offers a wide range of services ranging from independent living to skilled- nursing care.

Like other resort-style communities, Classic Residence at Silverstone, a Hyatt community, offers white-tablecloth dining and chef-prepared meals daily.

Maravilla, slated to open in 2011, will offer its residents four restaurants, an outdoor amphitheater and access to the TPC golf course in Scottsdale.

Published by Lovin' Life, February 2010

Joe Garagiola, Phoenix's beloved Major League ballplayer turned broadcaster, stands quietly behind a crowd of elegantly dressed, silver-haired couples in the dining room of the newly christened Sagewood senior living community on Mayo and Tatum Boulevards, just south of Desert Ridge Marketplace. Like everyone in the group, Garagiola is here to get a first look at the property each of this afternoon’s several hundred preview party attendees have already shelled out a half-million-dollar fee to buy into, and is right now craning his neck to hear what the resident chef has in store.

But at least one of the couples appears slightly starstruck standing next to the Hall of Famer, and finally the man asks Garagiola if he, too, is about to become a resident here.

“Yeah!” Garagiola responds cordially, then adds, “Eventually — if I save up enough of my money!” The group laughs, then moves on to check out the on-site market and café.

With Arizona rapidly becoming the epicenter for the new wave of upscale senior retirement developments — Sagewood is but one of five such “resort-style” continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) opening in the northeast Valley over the next two years, a trend being echoed in Tucson’s more affluent suburbs — buyers have a choice over not only what plush amenities each community offers, but also what notables they may be living next to in that community. After all, the roster of retirees in the Valley of the Sun has long been a Who’s Who of captains of industry, legendary sports figures and star entertainers; the A-list accommodations offered at these developments are only sure to attract more. And right now, judging from the man’s distracted gaze during the tour guide’s description of the commons card and games room, the prospect of playing Wii Baseball with the 1946 World Series champ sounds more exciting than anything the guide can say about the room design.

Not that the retirement communities flaunt their residents lists as a marketing tool, of course. “Well, I don’t feel comfortable naming names,” says Gail Rankin, executive director of Classic Residence at Silverstone, a new Hyatt community set to open this April in north Scottsdale. “But we have some very successful people moving into our community, and it’s an honor getting to know these people who have achieved so much in their lives.”

Indeed, with six-figure entrance fees and monthly fees ranging from $2,000 to over $7,000 at some of these communities, it’s a safe bet anyone you see putting around on the greens at one of Arizona’s CCRCs has built an empire or two — which can be important, when a person chooses what is, in effect, the last neighborhood they’re likely to move into. The brochures tip-toe around such finalities (choosing a CCRC is “a once-in-a-lifetime decision,” reads one), but today’s resort-style retirement villas are designed to accommodate their residents from independent living through assisted and, finally, to continuous skilled nursing care, “if needed.” Might as well spend those years with peers, whose company you enjoy. “Every community takes on its own personality, so to speak,” Rankin says, “and that’s really reflective of the residents who live there.”

But interestingly, residents who’ve already spent some time in such communities say status and achievements are the first things they let go of.

“Somebody asked me not too long ago, ‘How many former doctors and lawyers and CEOs do you have living there?’” says Jane McGrath, who’s lived with her husband, Larry, at Classic Residence at Grayhawk, the chain’s first Phoenix property, for the past five years. “And I say, ‘Gosh, I don’t think I could tell you!’ Because it’s very unusual: the particular group of people that live here, once they move in, they really do not have a need to brag about what they used to do. It will occasionally come up in the midst of someone telling an anecdote, and all of the sudden you’ll realize you’re sitting next to this high-powered guy whose name you suddenly recognize. But people pretty much assume when you come here, you’re here, and whatever you bring to the community now is what’s important. It doesn’t really matter too much what you did before, unless it brings something to what we do now.”

McGrath says that as one of the younger couples moving into Grayhawk, she and her husband, both retired schoolteachers, had half expected to encounter a senior version of the high school lunchroom scene, with all the residents falling into status-demarcated cliques. Instead, they’ve found something more akin to kindergarten recess, with everybody sharing and getting along as one.

“It’s been a real eye-opener,” she says. “It’s like we’ve all arrived at the same place. And we’re all enjoying this wonderful lifestyle together.”

To Grandma’s resort we go

“Wait ‘till you see this,” says an excited Jason Craik, briskly walking down the hallway of the newly opened Arté retirement community near Frank Lloyd Wright and Shea Boulevards in north Scottsdale. As the son in a Vancouver-based family business, Avenir, that’s been building resort-style retirement communities around Canada for the past 30 years, the detail-oriented V.P. beams with pride over every inch of the company’s debut Arizona project (additional locations are planned for Chandler and Surprise), from the grand art deco style dining room right down to the wallpaper in the hallways (“We saw this crystal faux painting work in Wallpaper Magazine. It was astronomically priced, so we just had our faux painters add glass into the mix.”).

“This is our concession bistro,” Craik says, pointing out a lobby-style concession stand, complete with old-fashioned popcorn maker, just across a hallway from the common area’s 35-seat movie theater.

“Part of the lifestyle here is, people love to watch movies. So in our concession bistro, we’ll have the movie playing quietly and we’ll have popcorn going, and residents can get chocolate bars, ice cream, soda pop, juice, whatever they want, and then go into this state-of-the-art movie theater. I mean, look at these chairs,” Craik says, squeezing the plush material. “These are the kind of chairs that you see in $5 million homes!”

If the description sounds a far cry from the common perception of the club room in a stereotypical “old folks home,” that’s precisely the point of the new concept retirement communities.

“The business has really evolved over the last five to ten years,” Craik says. “The perception in the marketplace is that these are old folks homes, but that’s not what they are anymore. This is a resort you can live in year-round. This is like living in the finest cruise ship.”

Other new developments mirror the Arté’s luxury amenities and services. All offer inclusive daily meals in country club-style dining rooms helmed by culinary award-winning chefs. The Sagewood adds a fitness center and organized classes in yoga and Tai-Chi, not to mention bridge, art and gardening and weekly field trips to the symphony or other social events. Classic Residence at Grayhawk has its own library, café, bar and piano lounge and even full-service bank along with perfectly-manicured putting greens in front of nearly every apartment. And the Maravilla, slated to open in 2011 on a 25-acre site adjacent to the Fairmont Scottsdale Resort and overlooking the 15th and 13th greens of the TPC Golf Course, plans to offer four restaurants, an outdoor amphitheater and access to the TPC course, part of a savvy deal struck between the property and its neighbors.

Obviously, all this cruise ship living doesn’t come cheap. But property managers stress that those six-figure entrance fees, often gained when a resident sells off their previous home, are either fully or partially refundable to the buyer’s estate upon their, ahem, passing, and that the monthly fees continue to cover long-term health care needs, should a resident need to move from independent to assisted living. “Basically, it’s really like an insurance product,” says Stewart Ingram, the Sagewood’s executive director, who adds that CCRC fees are regulated by the Arizona Department of Insurance. “If you compare our monthly fee [$3,200 for a single resident] to a nice nursing facility in north Scottsdale, which can easily run $250 to $300 a day for a private room, you can see why residents recognize the value of locking in their health care.”

Furthermore, the managers insist, those thousands in monthly fees can actually be a bargain when compared to all the common monthly living expenses covered by the average CCRC arrangement. Residents say goodbye to property taxes, utility, lawn care and home maintenance bills and hello to weekly housekeeping services, transportation to medical appointments, plenty of free social activities and a generous food and beverage allowance.

“This industry has emerged because it’s being driven by people who are used to being independent and don’t want to be a burden on their kids,” says the Maravilla’s executive director Tim Cowen. “In the old days, that meant the only place they could go was not a very nice place. It was a nursing home, or a setting like that. But today there are a lot of really nice options, so it’s no longer a step down. It’s really just a different lifestyle, a maintenance-free lifestyle.”

Better yet, today’s resort-style retirement communities are places the kids don’t mind seeing their aging parents living in, and where the grandkids can actually have a ball.

“It used to be the son or daughter would grudgingly go see Grandma at the nursing home and feel terrible afterwards,” says Cowen, who was fortunate enough to place his own parents in one of his company’s other luxury communities near Tucson, Silver Springs in Green Valley. “But now these properties are places the kids want to come to, and the food and everything is just like a fine resort.”

“We have two-and-a-half times more visits at our communities than at the average retirement home,” says the Arté’s Jason Craik, once again beaming. “It is a place where families want to visit, and where they feel good about visiting. For a lot of our residents, that’s the single greatest thing about it.”

Hotel, not hospital

For Jane McGrath, the greatest thing about moving into Classic Residence at Grayhawk is that she and her husband get to reap the rewards of having all their needs cared for before they’re too frail to actually enjoy it.

“My parents lived in a life care community here in the Valley many years ago, and Larry’s parents still do,” she says. “And we always knew that eventually, when we got old, we would like to investigate and choose a life care community for ourselves. Well, then a sister of mine became ill at a very young age and needed to go into an assisted living community, and we realized that it isn’t exactly written down when in life you should make those decisions. So we decided that if we were going to pay a significant amount of money to move in to such a place, why not do it while we could enjoy it? I mean, what’s wrong with having 24-hour concierge service, a housekeeper up cleaning our apartment as we speak, and luxurious white-tablecloth dining every day with a wonderful menu?”

Jan Wiggins, the Grayhawk’s sales director, says residents like the McGraths represent the trend in her industry: aging adults opting to move into the community of their choice while still healthy, rather than waiting until they’re “put into a home” of their offspring’s choice when their health fails.

“Usually, if you wait until something happens with your health, you’re very limited in your options,” Wiggins says. “So we have people as young as 57 now moving into our properties. Couples that are still active and vibrant who are securing their future, really.”

The approach, which Wiggins says was largely pioneered by the Hyatt Classic Residence chain (“We raised the bar for assisted living communities”), basically reverses the traditional health care model, which more closely resembled a hospital than a resort.

“When we started visiting senior living communities in the Valley, we very quickly figured out there were two main types,” says McGrath. “In the traditional health care model, we would walk in the front door and they would immediately tell us about their state-of-the-art health care facility, adding that, until we were ready for it, we could live in one of those dinky apartments over here,” she says, with a laugh. “Then we visited Classic and found out, ‘Oh, this other model is hospitality.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have a great health care complex when we need it, but the independent resort-style living is also a strong suit.”

Of course, reminders of the deteriorating health that may lie ahead are all around in a CCRC, from the handrails and emergency buttons in the restrooms to the walkers and wheelchairs that suddenly accompany old friends. Passing through the double doors at the end of a hallway that separates the independent living section from the assisted, McGrath pauses to converse with a friend whose halting speech indicates the difficult recovery from a stroke, and says hello to a woman from the independent side who provides daily book readings for residents on the assisted who’ve lost their sight. Finally, McGrath stops before opening the door to the care center, where a volunteer is playing piano for an audience largely wheeled in by skilled nurses, and turns back to return the bright, open rotunda, where happy hour is about to begin on the bar patio overlooking the fountains.

“The biggest drawback to living among an aging population is that we lose good friends,” McGrath admits. “But a very wise resident told me, shortly after we moved in and we lost a good friend, ‘Just think of how much you’d have missed if you hadn’t moved here and never got to know him at all.’ The wealth of experience that the people who live here have, it just couldn’t be found anywhere else.”

She falls quiet for a moment, then brightens. “And fortunately, the good food and exercise and healthy community extends life for many, many residents,” says the retired teacher, making a point that research appears to bear out. “There’s a correlation between quality of life and longevity. You can really see that here.”