Indian Senior Community Part of Growing Niche

Associated Press

When Arun and Usha Pancholi were deciding where to spend their retirement years, they wanted a place that combined the culture and camaraderie of life in India with the comforts and conveniences they had grown accustomed to after nearly five decades in Minnesota and Ohio.

They found both at central Florida’s ShantiNiketan, the first retirement community in the United States catering to people born in India. ShantiNiketan — Hindi for “House of Peace” — is one of a number of growing niche retirement communities aimed at people of specific ethnic backgrounds, hobbies or college allegiances.

“It is the best of both worlds,” said Arun Pancholi, 72, who retired with his 72-year-old wife from Columbus Ohio. “We would like to go back to India but we are so used to this life, we’re spoiled. We like football, beer and apple pie.”

Niche retirement communities are growing particularly popular as the 76 million baby boomers — a generation accustomed to molding traditional institutions in their image — are reaching retirement age. The mass-market retirement communities like Florida’s The Villages, Arizona’s Sun City and California’s Leisure World — popular with previous generations — will be competing with smaller, targeted developments, said Dan Owens, director of the National Active Retirement Association.

“They are demanding more choices. They have more money. They’re not content with the status quo,” Owens said.

ShantiNiketan’s opening was timed for the retirement of a major wave of Indian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, said Jeffrey Ignatius, president of the company that built the community about 35 miles from Walt Disney World. The idea for the resort was born after Ignatius’ father, who immigrated from around Chennai in southern India, couldn’t find an Indian-themed development for his own retirement. So he built one.

A clubhouse in the center of the condos holds a dining room, kitchen, a worship room with an enormous shrine holding icons of Hindu gods Shiva and Ganesh and an exercise room. The dining room serves dishes such as toor dal and chola masala, and on weekends hosts karaoke. In their homes, residents get 20 Indian channels on cable TV, and outside is a community garden filled with marigolds and tomatoes. Hindu holidays are celebrated with parades and prayer services.

Most of the residents are Hindus, although there are also Muslims and Christians.

Some residents choose ShantiNiketan for the comfort of being with people familiar with their foods, languages and religious tradition. Others seek a Hindu-oriented spiritual life rare in a traditional U.S. retirement community. The first phase of 54 one-story condos, with Spanish tiled roofs and stucco walls, is almost sold out, and a second phase of almost 120 units is under construction. An assisted living facility also will be built, and a similar community is being planned in New Jersey, which has the largest concentration of Indians in the United States.

For Manu Nayak, ShantiNiketan offered a welcoming environment where neighbors would feel like family. Two-bedroom condos typically sell for $200,000.

“There is nothing to hide,” said Nayak, 75, a former Verizon communications manager from New Jersey. “You get intimate friendships here that you wouldn’t get at another community.”