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Indian retirement community joins growing world of niche developments for seniors

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TAVARES, Fla. - 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 moulding 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 centre 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 neighbours 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."

Ram and Geeta Chandran were quite assimilated to American life, living in Newport News, Virginia, for decades. Ram Chandran, 75, was a manager for a Swiss-owned manufacturer, and Geeta Chandran was a teaching physician. Most of their friends were either U.S.-born or Swiss.

When they retired three years ago, they initially put a deposit down in a traditional U.S. retirement community in Newport News. But they heard about ShantiNiketan from a friend and chose to live there because of the opportunity to be with others from a similar background.

"We have common things to talk about. We understand each other a lot better," said Geeta Chandran. When she visited the Virginia retirement community, other residents asked her repeatedly about India and Indian culture, she said. "Here I don't have to answer any questions. Everybody knows everything."

The Chandrans, who moved from Mumbai to the United States as young adults, said they've learned about the many diverse cultures spread across India by living in ShantiNiketan.

"I never knew so many of the festivals they celebrate," Ram Chandran said.

He has taken up leading religious chanting in a room in the clubhouse used as a Hindu temple and also teaches yoga at the clubhouse. Geeta Chandran has jumped into planning the holiday festivities and the karaoke nights, but she misses having U.S.-born friends in her primary social circle.

The major downsizing involved in moving from a five-bedroom home near Edison, N.J. to a two-bedroom condo at ShantiNiketan wasn't a problem for Arvind Patel, 73, and his 69-year-old wife, Ranu. Arvind Patel, a former electrical engineer, said they're now in the "fourth phase" of their lives — past childhood, schooling and raising a family — when they want to concentrate on spiritual matters not material goods.

In the centre of their home is a large shrine with multicolored pictures and icons of Indian gods. Pictures of the blue-faced god-child Krishna adorn the home's walls.

"The last phase is when you grow spiritually," Patel said.

___

Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mikeschneiderap .

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