Burbank, Calif. - This winter, Suzanne Knode will get to watch her own short film, “Bandida,” on Showtime’s “This American Life.” The 69-year-old, who had never made movies before, wrote and produced her eight-minute film about an old woman who robs a convenience store through one of the activities at the “active-adult” housing project for seniors aged 55 and older where she lives.

The Burbank Senior Artists Colony is unique: All 141 apartments are targeted to artists, and the four-story building has filled up with a phalanx of retired actors, professional painters, amateur screenwriters, and musicians.

It’s one of a new wave of communities that offer older residents more physical and intellectual activities than ever before, helping them stay engaged with the world around them.

Other projects, like the Fairwinds River’s Edge, an assisted-living development in St. Charles, Mo., offer programs designed to help seniors stay physically strong and mentally sharp, so that they can better enjoy the seemingly endless activities available at this new style of seniors community.

The Colony helps seniors revive their old talents and acquire new skills through dozens of college-quality classes. The building’s common areas include a 60-seat performance space, two large art studios, and a digital film lab. There’s also a big clubroom with a baby grand piano. “They deserve the same things you and I want,” said Tim Carpenter, executive director of More Than Shelter For Seniors, a local nonprofit that runs classes and services at the Colony.

He plans the activities at the Colony in part by envisioning himself in the seniors’ place. “I don’t want to glue popsicle sticks together, and I don’t want to rot with a view of a golf course,” Carpenter said. “I want to live the same life I have now.”

Living that life can actually help seniors live longer, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California. While most elderly people grew more frail over the study’s 12 month period, the majority of the seniors in More Than Shelter’s program got healthier. Legacy Partners and nonprofit Meta Housing Corp. partnered to open the Colony in 2005. With 98 percent of the apartments occupied, the Burbank project has now succeeded so well that Meta is planning to open two more communities like it in Los Angeles in 2008. Meta has two sites under contract, including one in the Los Feliz neighborhood. The other site in the San Fernando Valley area may be targeted toward teachers.

Though any qualifying senior that met the project’s age restrictions was welcome at the Colony, Meta Housing made a special push to fill the development with senior artists, using spots on National Public Radio and public television to draw the artistically inclined.

Most of the apartments at the Colony are luxury units, but 30 percent are reserved for low-income seniors earning up to 50 percent of the area median income.

In exchange for these affordable units, Meta received a $14 million, 40-year, tax-exempt mortgage to build the $24 million project at a fixed interest rate of 5.4 percent. The city of Burbank provided another $3.25 million in soft financing. The sale of low-income housing tax credits provided another $3 million. The remaining equity came from private investors in the project, including Century Housing Corp. and Meta’s deferred developer’s fee.

Century Housing Corp. also helps to underwrite the cost of More Than Shelter’s programs, which are provided to all the residents, high-income or low, at no cost.

Leisure Care Offers Youthful Thinking

This fall, an 89-year-old man who hadn’t walked in two years stepped across the floor of the gym at Fairwinds River’s Edge.

A personal trainer had given him one-on-one guidance as the old man planned and followed through with an exercise program to rebuild his strength and reduce his reliance on his wheelchair.

Leisure Care, the company that owns and operates the Fairwinds, believes it can help its residents live healthier, happier lives. It’s offering this fountain of youth through activities ranging from yoga to ballroom dancing and programs like Prime Fit, the physical fitness program that provided the old man with his trainer at an extra cost of $35 a month.

“I’ve had a lot of seniors tell me, ‘I just want to dance at my daughter’s wedding,’” said Sharon Lefferts, senior director of health and wellness for Leisure Care, a seniors housing developer and manager based in Seattle.

“We have really helped people make their dreams come true.”

The seniors who live at Fairwinds can also take steps to improve their memories, unwinding some of the effects of age and even Alzheimer’s disease, by enrolling in the Posit Science Brain Fitness program, offered free to all residents.

The improvements can shave an average of 10 years of deterioration from residents’ levels of cognitive functioning, allowing a 79-year-old to recover the overall memory and brain fitness of a 69-year-old, according to Leisure Care.

The program sits seniors in front of computers to perform a series of mental exercises and games with the help of an instructor.

The sessions last for one hour, with a total of 40 sessions over eight weeks. Like the Prime Fit program, Brain Fitness is based on the idea that seniors can recover lost health and abilities by becoming more active and engaged, and that seniors and their families will recognize the value of these activities by choosing to live at Leisure Care’s properties.

Leisure Care bought the Fairwinds in June 2005. Back then only 54 percent of the Fairwind’s 185 seniors apartments were occupied. As the process of hiring new staff and starting new programs continued over the next 16 months, the percentage of occupied apartments remained in the 50s.

But by December 2006, just over two months after Leisure Care rolled out its new programs, the Fairwinds was 70 percent occupied as new tenants filled 13 empty apartments a month. Those apartments are renting for $50 a month more than competing seniors projects in St. Charles. Rents at the Fairwinds start at $1,995 a month for a 665-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment and rise to $3,900.

The average age of the seniors at the Fairwinds is about 80 years old, a little younger than the average age of 84 or 85 at an assisted-living property, said general manager Troy Jones.