Retirement Community Cliques: Middle School Redux?
Published April 19, 2023
Writer Laurie Saloman
When Anita D. moved into a bustling active adult community in the Northeast two years ago, she didn't know a soul. Hoping to change that, she began chatting with a group gathered in her building's lobby. As it was close to New Year's Eve, she asked if anyone would be interested in getting together to raise a glass in the lobby if she provided pretzels and wine. Everyone liked the idea, and multiple toasts were made.
The connection didn't last past that night, however. "Never once in two years have I ever had an invitation for dinner," Anita said. "They are a closed group."
"Never once in two years have I ever had an invitation for dinner. They are a closed group."
The good news is that Anita, who is energetic and active at 82, does not lack for company. By going on offsite trips and joining activities geared to her interests, which include pickleball, mah jongg and card games, Anita quickly forged connections that keep her busy from morning to night.
"We have small groups," she said. "That's your group that you eat dinner with. They're not solid groups — they're fluid — but it tends to be an inner circle that you spend time with."
According to researcher Heidi Ewen, cliques in retirement communities aren't necessarily a bad thing. If a handful of residents find each other through shared activities that allow them to bond, it can be quite beneficial for them.
"That really becomes a tight-knit group that you can call on for support," she said.
Ewen, associate professor of health and aging studies at the University of Indianapolis, authored a 2019 study called "Social Lives and Cliques Within Senior Housing Communities," which found that while most residents were able to identify cliques in their communities, they were not particularly bothered by them.
Like people of all ages, residents of retirement communities, whether active adult developments or assisted living complexes, seek out those with whom they feel comfortable. And while this works out well if you're in a group, it can sting if you're not. For residents who thought they'd seen the last of drama, gossip and exclusion back in middle school, the social dynamics of these communities can take some getting used to.
Social Sorting by Capability
Cliques can form when a group organically comes together by virtue of some joint experience, such as in retirement communities tied to colleges and universities. In these settings, alumni who have returned to live on or near campus may prioritize each other's company. Cliques also can form based on religion, ethnicity and age.
"What I see is people with similar capabilities sort of clustering together."
Indeed, age — particularly the physical and cognitive consequences of aging — is a potent factor in social stratification. Elna Robbins, a 92-year-old retired engineer living in a senior community in northern New Jersey, has noticed this.
"What I see is people with similar capabilities sort of clustering together," she said, observing that her own cluster is somewhat better educated and more capable than others.
Friend groups in which members' physical and mental faculties are roughly at the same level are common in retirement communities, Ewen said, especially those that welcome a broad range of ages. A 55-year-old couple is likely to be seeking a stimulating social life with lots of activity while a 90-year-old may be more isolated and in need of basic support.
Even among those of the same age, there can be a wide variety of abilities, none of which goes unnoticed by residents. "We 'other' them," Ewen said of residents who avoid those in need of more help. "I don't want to think it's going to happen to me and I don't want to see it happen to you."
This avoidant behavior can even lead to actions that are detrimental to residents. According to Ewen, some communities have banned walkers or other mobility implements — visual reminders of aging — in the dining room so as not to upset the younger, more agile residents. Another community installed handrails in public areas, which had residents up in arms over the stigma of looking like a nursing home.
Stereotypes and Unwritten Rules
"Society has many misconceptions about what it means to get older, and our staff doesn't approach our residents with those stereotypes in mind," said Justin Guest, vice president of resident engagement at Atria Senior Living, which operates senior communities in multiple states. "Across from us is a human that has lived an accomplished life, and we have the privilege to help them create a new social system, especially for those who have lost friends or partners in the past."
"Join a club you like, sit in the lobby, and talk to neighbors. Purposely look for people in your age or interest range … Be friendly. Invite one or more in for coffee."
At Atria communities, Guest said, each new resident fills out a survey about their favorite hobbies, foods, interests and goals, which allows staff members to introduce them to other residents whose company they'll likely enjoy.
According to Ewen, at many communities prospective residents are invited to visit and meet people before committing to move in, and some install friendly, talkative residents as ambassadors for their particular building or floor in order to engage those who may be more reticent.
In some communities, Ewen said that if people are unable to make friends or are being actively excluded, staff may host focus groups with residents to learn how things can be improved. They might step in if someone is really having a tough time socially, but in most cases residents manage to work things out on their own.
"Anywhere you go, there's sort of an unwritten rule or culture of a place," said Ewen, who discussed a woman who was being shunned at her new community because she invited two different men to her apartment for dinner on different nights. After her neighbors explained to her that entertaining men alone was frowned upon, she stopped doing it and was accepted as a friend.
When Robbins noticed a couple of men at her New Jersey community who avoided engaging with anyone at meals, she invited them to sit with her gang in the dining room, where they now happily take part in discussions.
She stressed that despite the similarities that bond them together, she and her friends are not interested in excluding people from their circle. "Anyone can join," she said. "It's not, 'Well, we really don't want you.'"
Although it can be intimidating to be the new kid on the block, it's worth making the effort to be accepted. "Moving to a new complex is always daunting," observed Anita, who found her social niche after being snubbed by her New Year's Eve companions. "[The] best advice is to be out and about. Join a club you like, sit in the lobby, and talk to neighbors. Purposely look for people in your age or interest range … Be friendly. Invite one or more in for coffee. They are also glad to make new friends."