Senior Focus: Happy hour gains steam in local retirement communities

Margaret Seal leans across the table to talk with LaDonna Laing as the two and other residents at Pioneer Ridge Independent Living pub, 1000 Wakarusa, enjoy a bourbon and cider within the retirement community's pub on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.

At Pioneer Ridge Independent Living, the party starts at 4 o’clock.

That’s when the facility’s pub — it still doesn’t have a name, though some options are being kicked around — opens up. Before long, the bar is crowded with residents knocking back a beer and sharing stories, or watching sports highlights on the big TV screen mounted above the shelves of liquor. Nearby sits an old jukebox (it’s waiting for a part to become operational); the room also features a billiards table, a dance floor and a gas-fueled fireplace. On the sound system, Michael Jackson is singing.

In this pub, at least, “happy hour” really is happy.

“Everybody is just as friendly as can be,” says Walter Robbins, 77, who lives here after a career spent mostly as a New York school teacher.

“This is where all the social stuff goes on,” adds his drinking buddy Philip Arnold, 84, a retired university administrator from Oklahoma. “The ladies come down a lot of times and play Trivial Pursuit.”

Tom Stutz gets a laugh out of Bonnie Dallas, left, and Margaret Seal upon his arrival at Pioneer Ridge Independent Living pub, 1000 Wakarusa, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.

Pioneer Ridge is one of several retirement communities in Lawrence with a fully operational bar on-site. Brandon Woods has had a bar — with a selection of beer and liquor to rival some downtown watering holes — since 2007; the forthcoming Village Cooperative community will also have a bar area stocked according to the wishes of residents.

What they all have in common: the need to cater to a retirement population increasingly filled with Baby Boomers who don’t see their golden years as a time to retire from having fun. The old days — when a single “community room” could serve as an arts and crafts room during one part of the day, exercise gym during another part, and hangout location during yet another part of the day — are gone.

“They have very high expectations on services,” says Don Minter, the food and beverage director at Brandon Woods. “Services and amenities are becoming more important.”

One other benefit of having a time and place to meet and drink: It gives senior residents of those communities a chance to mingle and maintain their social contacts.

“It keeps them active,” says Cathie Rodkey, sales manager for Village Cooperative. “Social ability is really good for the mind, for keeping you active, for getting involved.”

Your beverage, your choice

Brandon Woods opened its bar — complete with TV and sports paraphernalia — in 2007. KU game days are big, Minter says, as are Friday afternoon happy hours, when free appetizers are served. Residents pay a $15 annual “club membership” for the privilege of having a drink with their friends.

“I meet with new residents all the time, see what their favorite liquor is, and get it if we don’t have it,” Minter said.

The bar is good for the residents — and it’s a great way to showcase Brandon Woods to the families of residents, Minter said, as well as newcomers.

“The social aspect, it’s a great ice-breaker for getting to know your neighbors,” he said, and added: “If you don’t drink, you can still come up here for Cokes.”

At Pioneer Ridge, the pub is one of a vast array of services and activities available to residents: There’s an in-house coffee shop — open to the public — as well as a theater, an arts room, a game room, an exercise gym with modern equipment and more. The pub itself regularly hosts live music — thus, the dance floor.

Debbie Walker, regional director for independent living for Pioneer Ridge’s parent company, Midwest Health, said today’s retirees expect to live fully rounded lives.

“Our society for a long time thought just because somebody was a few years older, that they they didn’t retain all of their interests and their desires,” she said. “I think that people are becoming more savvy about that.”

The result is that Pioneer Ridge is “much less institutional; it’s a home environment.”

The pubs reflect the evolution of that thought, she said.

“All of our communities have had some sort of a bar or pub concept where we would just impromptu set it up and you’d have your happy hour night or something like that,” she said. “With this new concept of senior living, it’s all about what makes a full life, you know. We have multiple sides to our personalities. We enjoy doing different things.”

At the Pioneer Ridge bar, Robbins and Arnold became fast friends just a few weeks prior, after Robbins’ recent move to the community.

“I kept saying, ‘I need a new drinking buddy,'” Arnold said. “Walter comes in a week ago and he is really nice.”

Robbins said the opportunity to socialize and make friends has been helpful after his wife passed away in December.

“Family members have noticed I’m doing much better,” he said.

That’s the point, says Minter.

“The social aspect is critical,” he said. “What better way to get to know your neighbor than over a beer, glass of wine, or your favorite beverage? We have a lot of fun.”