Allow me to explain. Sonoma meets a widely used definition, originating in New York State. There, any area not planned or zoned for retirees, where nevertheless more than 40% of occupied homes have an occupant who is at least 60 years old, can be legally designated as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC). The State of New York has recognized 29 NORCs, and delivers to them services tailored to those over 60.
Demographers (I’m trained in and have taught demography) and sociologists apply this and similar definitions to find and study NORCs around the country. NORCs occur in three ways: residents aging in place, younger residents leaving, and older residents moving in. Sonoma has been experiencing all three.
Given that older residents tend to have fewer people in their households than younger, and that more than 40% of the population of Sonoma (city) is now over 60, we can be confident that more than 40% of occupied residences include someone over 60, satisfying this technical definition.
Another definition says that a community is a NORC if the median age is over 50. The median age in the City of Sonoma is 52.3, up from 49.2 in 2010 and 46.8 in 2000. Again, Sonoma qualifies as a NORC. Glen Ellen, median age 53.6, is also a NORC. Oakmont, median age 71, is not a NORC because it is an age-restricted community.
To be clear, I do not imagine that people over 50 or 60 contribute less to society. I know many Oakmonters who are in far better shape than my creaky 44-year-old self. A large population of mature adults provides substantial advantages to any community. So then, what does it matter if the city is technically a NORC?
California has no NORC laws or services. Vintage House and public agencies already provide much of the same individual support and community-building for older adults that New York’s NORC program is designed around. To me it is worth thinking about because it can influence our understanding of our community, and therefore public decisions and planning. It can lead us to literature and advice on what works well in NORCs.
For example, studies show that NORCs do well to invest in walkability, hyper-local public transit tailored to seniors, places to sit and gather, accessible public spaces, volunteer opportunities for retirees, and public education relating to healthy aging. Businesses in a NORC should be especially responsive to the needs of those over 60. Realizing that the city is a NORC also offers the opportunity to re-examine the patterns that have led the median age to be 16 years older than the State of California’s 36.5.
We can’t stop residents from aging, but current policy does have the effect of encouraging younger people to leave, and retirees to settle. I don’t live in a NORC (I’m in Boyes, median age 36) but hope that this simple observation may help the city better serve its residents, regardless of age.
— Daniel Levitis, Fetters Hot Springs