Monday, March 11, 2013

On the House: For retiring boomers, no McMansions

The early days of my life as a real estate writer were dominated by a number of issues, notably "active-adult" housing.

In the 1960s, these were called retirement communities, and they were in Arizona and Florida. Grandma and Grandpa moved there and played golf every day.

The first time I wrote about it, an editor asked whether "inactive adult" housing was what was found at Laurel Hill Cemetery, especially at those marble mausoleums overlooking Kelly Drive at Hunting Park Avenue.

Undaunted, I wrote about every innovation. Key to the initial stages of this phenomenon was the idea of downsizing - that is, getting rid of what you don't need and moving to something smaller and easier to care for.

As active-adult housing evolved over the next several years, however, it seemed to get larger, acquiring a McMansion quality.

Builders argued that aging adults wanted enough room to keep all their stuff and have offices, workshops and craft rooms, as well as places for holiday dinners and separate bedrooms for their many grandchildren.

Claire Gawinowicz of Oreland has never bought that argument.

"I am a typical, middle-aged boomer, and I have lots of friends and relatives in my same age group," she writes. "I talk to them a lot about the empty nest and where the heck are we going to move to now that we have freedom."

What Gawinowicz says she and those she knows want is what active-adult-housing builders were promising back in the mid-to-late 1990s:

A one- or two-story house with two or three bedrooms and a tiny yard, with no lawn mowing or snow shoveling; the ability to walk to shops, cafes and entertainment; hiking and walking trails, and easy access to public transportation.

"Do you know how incredibly hard this is to find?" Gawinowicz asks. "There are millions of boomers out there looking for this, and the builders just keep building McMansions."

I think what happened is that builders assumed that boomers were a homogeneous group, and that all of us were wealthy.

Reinforced by the demographers, they attributed a number of traits to us - the most misleading being that we had a huge pile of disposable income and were willing to spend all of it for the tendency toward "instant gratification" that has marked our generation.

I attended housing meetings across the country and heard this said time after time.

The boomers were not the only ones being labeled. Generation X had trouble getting off the sofa; Gen Y was something else altogether.

It's easy to pigeonhole and stereotype. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of time.

Plus, all real estate is local, and what we want here is not what goes over big in Dodge City, or Boca Raton, or L.A. - especially L.A.

The reality, too, is that after several years of economic downturn, the majority of us aren't worth as much as we were a decade ago.

Housing prices are coming back, but not by leaps and bounds. Boomer homeowners are finally able to sell their houses and move on down, but the prices they are getting have forced a reduction in expectations.

I think this is the new reality Gawinowicz and her friends are talking about. And it's what builders would be wise to accommodate.

On the House: Town by Town

In the Sunday Business section, Alan J. Heavens takes a look at real estate and life throughout the region. This week's focus: Fox Chase.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, or @alheavens at Twitter.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Healthcare Spending Pits Elderly Against Illegal Aliens

The culture war is moving from when life begins to how it should end. Like a drum beat, supporters of the Obama agenda are protesting that the elderly are consuming too many health resources, and their care needs to be cut back.

The current target of this unrelenting campaign against the elderly is the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is charged with devising a plan to reduce federal deficit spending by Nov. 23.

Among those calling for less care for seniors is H. Gilbert Welch of Dartmouth Medical College.

“If you were hoping to play the ‘death panel’ card, now’s your chance,” Welch says to his critics. “But don’t play it and then pretend you care about the budget.”

That brazen statement — pitting grandma's well-being against the nation's fiscal health — is a false choice. Future federal healthcare spending can be significantly reduced by repealing the expansion of Medicaid and the billions poured into medical and interpreter services for illegal immigrants under the Obama health law before these provisions go into effect.

The Obama health law, enacted 18 months ago, raided Medicare to fund new entitlements for low-income groups — in essence, robbing grandma to spread the wealth.

The law reduces future funding for Medicare by $575 billion over 10 years, and applies most of it ($410 billion) to increase Medicaid enrollment and benefits. The Obama health law transforms Medicaid from a temporary safety net to a permanent alternative to private health insurance.

Medicaid spending will top $900 billion in 2020 (state and federal funds), costing about the same as Medicare. That’s amazing considering the wave of baby boomers entering Medicare in this decade.

In addition to expanding Medicaid, and contrary to the president's promise, the new law allocates billions of dollars to expand services largely for illegal immigrants, including $11 billion for community health centers serving those ineligible for Medicaid. Why should grandma's care be cut to free up resources for lawbreakers?

This year the Department of Health and Human Services announced an Action Plan to increase spending on “promotores” or “trusted local people to serve as community health workers” and software for people with limited English to enroll in government programs.

Cuts to Medicare are not about reducing federal spending. They are about redistributing healthcare.

To defend the enormous cuts to Medicare in the health law, Obama administration officials told seniors that hospitals are overspending on aged patients. But research indicates that is generally untrue. Hospitals that spend more on elderly patients and offer more intensive care have lower death rates, and their patients are more likely to survive their illness and resume an active life.

It is in this context that the calls for less care seem suspect. An article by Welch and colleagues in the Archives of Internal Medicine (Oct. 24, 2011) tried to counter the message uttered so often by breast cancer survivors that a mammogram “saved my life.”

Welch and colleagues suggest that routine annual mammograms are excessive. Their research found that a majority of women with breast cancer detected through mammography did not owe their life to the screening. They would have survived anyway because of effective treatment to eradicate the cancer after later detection or because the cancer was slow growing.

All that is true, but the data show that approximately 13 percent of 50-year-old women with screening-detected breast cancer would have died if they had not been screened. They owe their life to that routine test. That is a significant number. For 70-year-old women, the figure is even higher — far too high to dismiss.

Rather than limiting care options and forcing hospitals to operate in an austerity environment, the supercommittee should repeal the costly expansion of Medicaid, curb community organizing funded with health dollars, and gradually inch up the eligibility age for Medicare.

There are ways to reduce federal health spending without cutting short grandma's life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Storytree Wants Families To Spin, Share, And Save Good Yarns

After Google+, does the world need another online community? Storytree thinks it does and offers a site to help family members tell their favorite tales. "With Facebook and Google Circles, you get a lot of noise going on," a cofounder tells us. "We're focused on the meaningful content."
Storytree is out to solve a problem that's been bothering baby boomers and the elderly. They love to talk on the phone and visit with their younger family members, but they don't feel like they get to often enough. When they do connect, the stories they share aren't preserved-- and sending videos back and forth is cumbersome.
Inspired by these groups, their gripes, and StoryCorps, Matthew Sullivan and Zach Weiner recently launched the Storytree website, a digital online storytelling community for families.
Users create their own "storytrees" and are given the option to either record a story or ask a family member to respond to a question via video, photo, or audio recording. Someone might ask a grandparent how they met their spouse, for example, or about their first car.
Sullivan originally came up with the concept in a class at Stanford's d. school that focused on human-centered design projects. Weiner, then studying in Stanford's Computer Science department, joined his mission. With a team of three other people, they have been working on Storytree full-time for the past three months. They managed to raise seed funding from 500startups and the Designer Fund. Sullivan says Storytree aims to raise additional funds, soon.
The company is not the first to attempt preservation of family history through a digital storytelling community online. The website now known as started off as a family social networking site in the early 1990s (with the domain name That idea didn't catch, but the site switched its focus to genealogy and succeeded.
Sullivan believes, "We're reaching a point now with technology that it would be easy enough to have these people become connected with each other, to tell their stories." Storytree even enlisted former CEO Tom Stockham as an adviser.
Proust, another new memory-sharing service for seniors, focuses on individual life stories. Sullivan says Storytree is in more of "a collaborative space." While Storytree is focused on senior family members now, it won't be in the long run, he adds: "It may end up being the younger generation that goes to grandma's house, records stories, and puts it on this site."
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY recently contacted Storytree, expressing interest in using the service to collect baseball stories from fans. The service could also be used by parents to share video of their children in the early days of life. That's something behemoth social networks might be able to provide as a service, too.
Sullivan says it's not the same, there. "There's a gap between services like Facebook and what we offer. With Facebook and Google Circles, you get a lot of noise going on. We're focused on the meaningful content."
For now, Storytree is growing its product line and features-- it plans to launch an iPhone app this month and soon after that, to bring their website out of its beta phase.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A tech startup that may defy the odds (and jokes)

When it comes to technology, it's time to rethink the standard jokes about old folks. You know, the ones where bumbling seniors mistake CD drives for toaster ovens and stuff like that.
Truth is, in the days ahead, the joke will be on any tech company that hasn't figured out how to connect with graying baby boomers, the holy grail of marketers.
By now, we've heard lots about the so-called "Silver Tsunami": the wave of baby boomers who will be moving from the work force into retirement at the rate of 10,000 per day for the next 19 years.
What we've heard less about are entrepreneurs such as Charlotte native Kevin Merrill, who is working overtime to develop products that will appeal to grandma and grandpa during their twilight years.
"This group will have the greatest influence of buying power in the history of the U.S.," says Merrill, the 49-year-old co-founder of invianet inc., a wireless Internet firm that caters to assisted living homes and vacation rental properties.
"Boomers are an independent, technologically savvy generation who don't want to burden their children."
Far more than previous generations, the oldest boomers today, those born between 1946 and 1954, not only know how to use a computer, but they depend on it for socializing on Facebook, paying their bills, or even streaming Netflix.
Over the past decade, according to Pew Research Center, the nonprofit think tank, computer use among Americans at age 65 or older has doubled. Internet use by the group has tripled.
The result is that today's seniors expect state-of-the art technology, even in their assisted living residences. "Fluffy pillows and clean towels (alone) just don't cut it anymore," Merrill says.
Frankly, though, the true upside for invianet consumers is simply this: The firm fully manages the wireless network for the entire property, which rids individual users of the headache of dealing one-on-one with such carriers as Time Warner Cable or AT&T.
(Avoiding those maddening exchanges alone could add a few years to somebody's life.)
"We're soup to nuts," says Merrill, a Myers Park High School graduate whose partners are based in Atlanta; Greenville, S.C.; and Charlotte. The firm sells a broad suite of services to property owners, from installation of a broadband connection, to technical support and management of all equipment.
Of course, tech startups come and go - and even the most innovative firms are having trouble surviving this economy. But Merrill says this company is getting ready to defy the odds.
Founded by four partners less than a year ago after more than two years of market research, invianet has since secured six contracts at homes for seniors in North Carolina, with dozens more in other states in the pipeline, Merrill says.
Contracts from property owners can range from $1,000 to $7,500 per month, he says.
While Merrill declines to disclose current revenues, he says he hopes to generate revenues in the $12 million range in the next three years. "Our biggest dilemma is trying to keep up and manage our growth," he says.
That kind of success would be nothing to joke about.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why are so many baby boomers retiring in Central America?

Bill Dorgan, a former management consultant with a bit of a wandering soul, gave up on his first attempt at retirement in Fort Lauderdale to move to Panama to seek new adventure.
And adventure he found.
“I drove out to Lake Gatun to visit the Embera Indians,” Dorgan recalls with a flicker in his eye. “They picked me up in a dugout canoe and took me across the lake to spend the day in their community, where I danced with bare-chested women. That was an adventure!”
Back in the capital city, Dorgan lives a more urbane lifestyle with his partner Raymond in a spacious and elegantly remodeled 12th-floor apartment overlooking the shimmering glass towers of Panama City’s oceanfront banking district.
Here he has found more modest adventure in daily tasks such as learning to speak Spanish, opening a bank account in a foreign country, making new friends and buying and remodeling an apartment.
Dorgan, like thousands of other North American retirees from his generation, has taken moving south for retirement to new latitudes.
A 2007 survey by New Global Initiatives, in conjunction with the Zogby International, found that more than 3 million U.S. citizens have decided to relocate outside of the United States, and another 17 million were considering making the move. The survey showed that Central America ranked second behind Europe among 55 to 69 year-olds who plan to retire abroad.
That was before the financial crisis hit like a tsunami at the end of the decade, wiping out millions of retirement funds and stock portfolios. Now Central America’s relatively low costs, adjusted property prices and promising economic recovery makes it an even more attractive destination for folks who need to make their retirement dollars stretch further than previously planned.
And within Central America, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have positioned themselves as the top three picks for retirement – each with its own unique set of pros and cons.
With 73 million U.S. baby boomers set to retire over the next 10 years, this region’s broad offering has something for almost everyone.
Ryan Piercy, head of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR), says Central America is sitting pretty when it comes to attracting the baby boomers, whose retirement wave officially started in 2011.
“Central America and Latin America are going to receive at least 250,000 American retirees over the next 15 years. And of all the options in the region, the majority, in my opinion, will go to Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua,” Piercy told The Nica Times in an interview in his office in downtown San José, Costa Rica.
Piercy says that Mexico, once considered the preferred Latin American retirement destination for North Americans, has become too dangerous with all the drug violence – a similar plague afflicting Guatemala and, more recently, Honduras.
And while several South American options such as Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile have become attractive, they are half a world away from the U.S. Cuba remains a Caribbean wildcard, but the baby boomer generation might have already come and gone by the time the communist island opens fully.
In other parts of the world, Europe has become too expensive for many bargain hunters, and places such as the Philippines and Thailand, with their different time zones and cultural differences, might be “too foreign” for many U.S. retirees.
While (thankfully) not all baby boomers seeking warming weather will settle on Central America, if even a small percentage come it will have an enormous impact on small countries such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama.
“If we get 100,000 new retirees in a small country like this, it would be huge,” Piercy said, noting that Costa Rica, despite its advanced “gringoification,” only has somewhere between 25,000 to 50,000 North American residents at the moment.