I have a fantastic plan for my final years: I'll move to Brooklyn Heights, where even the young people are old, and hire a good-looking manservant to push my wheelchair while I whack cats, DJs and children with my cybercane. I have a lot to look forward to.
Of course, life doesn't always go as planned, and it's smart to consider your alternatives before your alternatives consider you. New York might be a fabulous place to grow old, but those third-floor walkups are murder on the hips. For oldsters who are too cool for Florida and too frail to live alone, there's a third option—the independent living community.
These places, which tend to attract healthy folks in their 80s and 90s, have little in common with nursing homes. By definition, they're not even licensed to provide medical care. It's more like summer camp—think arts and crafts, field trips on the bus and meals in the dining hall. Jonathan Collins, executive director of the Hallmark, an upscale senior community in Battery Park City, prefers a different analogy: "It's a cruise ship on land!"
Indeed, the Hallmark, with its Four Seasons décor—dark wood paneling, grand floral arrangements, patterned rugs—does have a distinctly ritzy feel. Ralph Lauren might put his mom here.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Collins pointed out the library, game room, swimming pool and tiny, empty fitness room. "Getting old should be fun, which is a challenge," said Mr. Collins, who is in his 60s. "It has a lot of depressing components."
The 675-square-foot model apartment, with its beige carpets, white walls and galley kitchen, looks like your standard new-build condo, but for the emergency pull cords and the motion detector over the entryway. If you're not moving by 10 a.m., the staff will come knocking.
In the art studio, we stopped to admire a sculpture created by the community's Tuesdays at 4 club, a gang of 90-somethings notorious for having organized a flash mob in Union Square. A sort of geriatric "ode to joy," the piece consisted of a walker decorated with watches, feathers and old prescription bottles. I'm not clear whether it was intended as an ironic statement.
In the lounge, with its grand piano and dance floor, a half-dozen residents were gathered for a pow-wow with the dining services manager, discussing the pros and cons of taking fruit up to their room. "What about sour cream?" one lady wondered.
A resident shuffled by and muttered under his breath: "I'm writing a sitcom about this place!"
I later joined three residents for a white-tablecloth dinner (the choice of six entrees included coq au vin) in the Hallmark's elegant dining room. They were quite the distinguished bunch: Will Baumol, 91, is an NYU economist who just published his 48th book; architect Shirley Klein, 86, was borough commissioner with the Department of Buildings; cardiologist Monte Malach practiced for 50 years. They never expected to live in a retirement community. "I'm just astonished I got to this age," says Dr. Malach. "Most of my friends are dead."
Ms. Klein's story is typical. She was living in Fresh Meadows, Queens, until her husband died and friends moved south. The neighborhood filled with immigrants. "They were good to me, very respectful," says Ms. Klein. But she was alone all day. Her daughter, who lives in TriBeCa, suggested the nearby Hallmark.
Now, Ms. Klein eats breakfast every morning with the same gang of five. There are bus trips to MoMA, concerts at Lincoln Center and lectures by guest authors. There's also the reality of living in close quarters with 220 die-hard New Yorkers who've seen it all. "There's a lot of personality here, sometimes too much," says Ms. Klein.
It's a nice landing spot if you can afford it. The typical Hallmark resident pays roughly $7,000 a month for a one-bedroom. That includes meals, housekeeping, linen service, transportation and activities, but it's twice the price of a standard Battery Park City rental. It's also double the national average rate charged by Brookdale, the publicly traded company that owns the Hallmark and more than 645 retirement communities across the country.
For oldsters on a budget, there are places like Flushing House, a 319-unit independent living community at the end of the No. 7 line in Queens. For $2,400 a month, residents get a 364-square-foot studio with brown rugs, stucco ceilings and a "euro-style" kitchenette (two-burner electric stove, tiny sink). The fee includes a menu of services and activities rivaling the Hallmark's, and if the place is a bit more institutional in feel (textured wallpaper, easy-care carpets), it also has its charms, including a gorgeous rooftop solarium with a panoramic view of the city.
Run by a nonprofit aimed at middle-class seniors, Flushing House attracts Queens's retired cops and teachers. Activities Leader Katie Rivers says the joint's most popular field trip is the bus excursion to the 99-cent store, followed by jaunts to Target and the movie theater. The place also has a house band—residents who recorded an album featuring both covers ("You Are My Sunshine") and originals ("The Naughty Lady of Flushing House").
At a recent dining-hall lunch (paper placemats, choice of pudding or Oreos), Carolyn Battey and Celia Bass (age 101!) nodded as tablemate Tom Vanbell wolfed down a grilled cheese and recalled his World War II adventures. "General de Gaulle gave me a kiss on both cheeks," he said. "Plop! Plop!"
Not to be outdone, retired police officer Roosevelt Snipes bragged of nabbing a legendary robber. But those days are over. Now, on a typical day, he likes to cook himself a big breakfast, nap, eat a big lunch in the dining hall with his pals, walk, nap again, eat a big dinner and play poker: "Whoa. What a day, right?"
Sounds good to me! At the Hallmark, I asked Mr. Collins if they'd relax the age minimum and let me move in. He set down his pen and stared: "Why would you want to?" Maybe I should wait a few decades.
Write to Anne Kadet at Anne.Kadet@dowjones.com
A version of this article appeared January 19, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Senior Living It Up.