"Active" and "independent" are the bywords of many of today's retirement communities. They're being designed to get residents out of their homes and keep them involved in life.

Sales Director Shirley St. Jean of Manchester Lakes senior apartments in Alexandria, Virginia, says "all good retirement communities" have a community space or multi-purpose area "so people can congregate and be together." She says "the other thing that you will have is a postal area or mail drop" in one spot. Manchester Lakes also features centrally located common areas on each floor for specific purposes, such as a craft room, exercise area, media room, health library and hair salon.

Erickson Retirement Communities embrace a similar philosophy. Kevin Glover, an architect and Vice President of Development Services, refers to the concept as "retailing." He says you can help sell people on getting involved if you "put activity areas on the path to the mail and meals." If there's a space "down in the basement with a solid door marked craft room, you're not going to find anyone in it."

At Erickson communities and Manchester Lakes, residents never have to go outside to see their neighbors or participate in activities. Individual units and community areas in the multi-story buildings are linked with internal corridors. Glover says that during a snowstorm, you might find residents throwing a party in the corridor as they watch people outside struggling against the elements.

Sherwood Oaks Retirement Community in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, handles things a bit differently. All of its units are one-story and have outdoor entrances. However, the concrete pathways connecting all of the homes and the community building are covered and have a wind screen.

What snow might blow in, maintenance people shovel away. Resident Bill Esler says that's one of the big perks, "I don't have to shovel snow or mow the lawn any more."

Back indoors, St. Jean says one thing to look for in common areas are handrails, sometimes disguised as chair rails, which can make it easier for residents to get around. Have a seat in one of the gathering areas and you might notice the chairs are a bit higher, making them easier to get out of once again. Another thing she notes that's important -- plenty of light.

All three retirement areas boast a wide variety of programs ranging from exercise classes and movie nights to community service projects and field trips. They also offer free or low-priced transportation so residents can get out to do their shopping.

Take a look at the community calendars at retirement communities and you'll find a full plate. The family of one resident at Manchester Lakes says their mother is hardly ever home to answer the phone. She's always out doing something. A typical week at Sherwood Oaks for Esler might include swimnastics, a workout in the exercise room, square dancing and a musical program in the community auditorium. He's also given presentations on some of his overseas vacations.

Esler says he found it was very easy to meet fellow residents at Sherwood Oaks. "We're all in the same fix," he says, and "people seem much more friendly than usual." They're also good about coming to each other's aid. Since Esler's eyesight is better than that of some of his usual dinner companions, he helps the others out by reading the nightly menu to the rest of the group. When Esler lost a button from his coat, another resident quickly offered to sew it back on for him.

Moving into a retirement community is not an easy decision and should not be taken lightly. The lifestyle doesn't suit everyone. However, for those who might think of retirement homes as sad, lonely places, it's worth taking a look at what's out there today.

Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.

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