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Retirement communities being restyled to suit greater demands of baby boomers; As 'silver tsunami' approaches, facilities shift toward more space, wider choice of amenities

Don Kovac inserts a key, turns the lock and steps back in time. The one-bedroom, one-bath unit built in the 1960s has low ceilings, a small kitchen, little closets and 557 square feet -- reflecting a generation that didn't require much space in retirement.

This is not what the baby boomers want in a retirement community. They want big kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, walk-in closets, showers instead of tubs (unless they are Jacuzzis), wall space for flat-screen televisions and wireless Internet access.

And this is why Lutheran Haven in Oviedo, Fla., is part of a national trend that finds retirement communities reinventing themselves for the next generation of retirees, the "silver tsunami" of Americans just now entering their 60s.

"The baby boomers want fitness, dining and fellowship," said Kovac, executive director of Lutheran Haven. "We have no fitness equipment. We have a horseshoe pit nobody uses and a shuffleboard court. I don't think the boomers are going to want a shuffleboard court."

Elsewhere, retirement communities are linking with universities to attract college-educated boomers interested in lifelong learning. Glen Meadows, in Glen Arm, Md., boasts of becoming the first in the nation to offer "Masterpiece Living" -- a program that stresses social, physical, spiritual and intellectual fulfillment.

CantaMia, a retirement community in Arizona, recently won recognition for its development specifically designed for boomers, including solar-heated "green" homes and a 30,000-square-foot facility that offers healthy cooking classes, Zumba, an indoor lap pool and a resort-style outdoor pool.

The wave of retirees is not here yet -- the first boomer turned 60 in 2006 -- but they are coming, and the retirement industry is already preparing for their arrival.

"We need to start looking at this now," Kovac said. "The wave is coming, and our campus is aging."

The transformation is taking place from working-class retirement communities such as Lutheran Haven to upscale facilities such as the Mayflower in Winter Park, Fla. Lutheran Haven's most expensive unit, at $133,000, is about what the Mayflower charges for its entry-level apartment. Mayflower's most expensive is $670,170, along with a monthly fee of $3,886.

No longer enclaves of the old, ill and infirm, "continuum care" retirement centers are trying to appeal to a younger, more affluent retiree, said Alicia Labrecque, executive director of Orlando Senior Health Network, which operates Orlando Lutheran Towers.

"We are selling the independent, urban-living lifestyle, and if you need health care, you don't have to move. We have it right here," Labrecque said.

That urban retirement lifestyle is just what Jeanne Asher was looking for when she moved six years ago into a 1,600-square-foot apartment carved out of three smaller units. Archer said she chose Lutheran Towers because of the apartment's larger size, the ability to remodel it to her tastes and its downtown location.

Without those options, she doubts she and her husband would have moved into the retirement high-rise.

"Urban living is what I wanted all along," said Asher, who moved into the apartment from a condo in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "There is something going on at Lake Eola every week."

Choice also extends to food service in the evolving retirement communities. At the Mayflower, the formal dining room posts a different dinner menu every day. The more casual Grille Room, which serves beer, wine and pub food, resembles an upscale sports bar.

Giving retirement residents choices on how they want their apartments remodeled has replaced the "one-size-fits-all" attitude of the past. Nancy Klingler said that if she had to move into one of the standard villas at the Mayflower, she wouldn't have chosen the retirement center. Instead, she was able to customize her villa to include living room built-ins, two huge closets and a contemporary kitchen with an island.

"With the normal ones, I wouldn't have been happy. They were old-fashioned. They were dated," said Klingler, 67. "I wanted hardwood floors. I wanted granite. I changed all the bathroom fixtures."