Few studies of NORCs strictly define the concept of a NORC; most simply describe the demographic characteristics of the particular NORC under consideration. Those studies that define NORCs generally agree on what constitutes a NORC, but have competing criteria on the specifics. All researchers agree that a NORC is a geographic area that has a significant proportion of older people residing in a specific area or in housing that was not designed or planned with seniors in mind. They do not agree, however, on what constitutes a "significant proportion" or how old a person must be to be included in that proportion.
Michael Hunt wrote the seminal work on NORCs in 1990 based on his observations and studies of neighborhoods in Wisconsin.13 He defined NORCs as housing developments that are not planned or designed for older people where at least half of the residents are age 60 or older. He noted that NORCs could be found in apartment buildings or condominiums, neighborhoods, small towns, or rural areas.14
Other researchers define NORCs similarly but with differences in the age chosen as the cutoff for inclusion and the proportion of the community that must meet it. New York state legislation defines a NORC as an area where at least 50 percent of households have one member over 60 years old or where the housing complex contains over 2,500 residents who are elderly.15 In Atlanta, a local consortium targeting NORCs for comprehensive service delivery defines a NORC as a census block group with at least 25 percent of the population over age 65.16 The consortium further identifies census block groups with a high percentage of people age 75 and older and living alone as high-risk. Lyons and Magai define a NORC for the purposes of their study as a housing community where at least 65 percent of residents are age 50 years or older but do not explain their choice.17
Lanspery and Callahan, in their analysis of 1990 Census data, defined a NORC as a geographic area where at least 40 percent of the heads of households in a census block group with at least 200 households are age 65 and over.18 They chose 65 as the age cutoff rather than 60 as proposed by Hunt because this age offers a more conservative estimate of the number of NORCs, and because 65 is the age of eligibility for Medicare. In specifying a minimum number rather than a proportion of households, Lanspery and Callahan were focusing on the opportunities presented by NORCs for the provision of supportive services. Two hundred households represents the mid-range of what is generally considered large enough to support a full-time services coordinator in senior housing.
In the literature, the age at which a person is considered "older" ranges from 50 to 65 years old, and the definition of a "significant proportion" ranges from 40 to 65 percent. Subject matter experts we spoke with also disagreed on specifics. Some advocated 60 as the lower bound for who is considered older to provide consistency with the Older Americans Act. Others suggested that the cutoff should be related to the level of disability rather than a specific age.
About half the experts noted that density of the older population in the community is important, because of the economies of scale that can facilitate services provision. Others argued for the number of older people in a community as the key criterion. Most experts asserted that about half the population of a community must be older for it to be considered a NORC.
The distinction between the proportion of the population and the number of people who meet a particular criterion is important, since the proportion may contribute to defining a community's character. Lanspery and Callahan report that communities begin to feel the impact of an aging population when its share of the population exceeds about 26 percent, although density and geographic spread matter.19 The number of people meeting a criterion, however, has more bearing on how supportive services programs are implemented. In a densely settled urban area, the proportion of the population that meets the chosen age criterion may be below the chosen cutoff, and so not meet the definition of a NORC. But the number of older people may exceed a threshold that would allow for economies of scale in services provision.
It is noteworthy that some authors and experts define a NORC by referencing the idea of a supportive services program. There is, however, value in keeping the two concepts separate. A NORC is a community made up of people, some of whom may need services; a supportive services program may be an asset to such a community. Communities can have a significant proportion of older people without needing supportive services. Other communities may have residents needing services but not meet the definition of a NORC.
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"NORCsspA1.pdf" (pdf, 636.12Kb)
"NORCsspA2.pdf" (pdf, 360.82Kb)