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Real Retirement: ‘We want to move to a 55+ community — how do we find the best one?’


My spouse and I are in our mid 70s. We’re thinking of moving to an independent living community 
in the coming years. It’s overwhelming trying to sift through all the options and figure out the right fit for us. Any tips on how to research our options and identify the best one? 

S.P., Kittery, Maine 

Dear S.P.,

House hunting starts off fun. Visualizing your future in a new setting sparks excitement and a sense of limitless possibility.

Then reality hits. Riding the emotional roller coaster of matching what you want with what you find takes intestinal fortitude.

Read: Not sure where you want to live in retirement? Our tool can help you narrow it down

Shopping for an independent living community adds another layer of complexity. That’s because the definition of “independent living” varies—and each community has its own amenities, rules and housing options.

Read: No license? No problem. Check out these options for seniors who no longer drive

“Not everyone has the vocabulary or knowledge base to figure out where to move,” said Sarah Ordover, owner of Assisted Living Locators Los Angeles, part of a nationwide network of advisers who help seniors and their families. “It’s important to have a plan of what you want to do so that you’re in control.”

Read: Here’s how to save money on capital-gains taxes when you sell your house

Here’s a three-step process to organize your search:

1. Prioritize what matters most to you. List everything you’d ideally want—in terms of both your new home and the surroundings—and then rank each item. This way, you can score each community based on how close it satisfies your wants and needs.

2. As you tour facilities, take meticulous notes. Before you drive away, debrief as a couple and jot your impressions.

“Write down your immediate thoughts, your gut feelings about the place,” said Carol Katz, co-owner of Adult Care Advisors in Manalapan, N.J. “Write right on the brochure: loved the meal, clubhouse too small, etc. After you look at two or three communities, they start to meld together” so promptly recording your detailed observations helps you keep track.

3. Maintain a separate file for each community, generate a list of follow-up questions and add the answers to each file. Pay special attention to the financial terms (such as what percentage of your funds you or your estate can get back if you leave or die).

Read: How much can I spend in retirement?

Independent living is a squishy concept. Some stand-alone communities may have lush landscaping but offer minimal support services. Others are like resorts with swimming pools, tennis courts and hobby clubs. They may affiliate with nearby medical providers, assisted living units and skilled nursing facilities if you need them.

Continuing-care retirement communities, common in most but not all parts of the country, allow you to age in place. They usually operate independent living, assisted living, long-term care and a dementia unit on the same campus. You sign a contract and typically pay a hefty lump sum upfront (ask about monthly fees as well) with some or most of it refundable under certain conditions.

Consultants, such as Ordover and Katz, offer free advice to seniors who explore moving. They earn a referral fee, paid by the community, when the individual moves in. Check your local listings under “senior care advisers” or “senior living consultants” to find them. Work with someone who knows the local facilities, tours them regularly and understands the pros and cons of each one.

Think like a pessimist when you visit communities. Assess to what extent each residence is equipped for health emergencies, such as having pull cords in rooms or other medical alert systems in place. Check if the community provides certified nursing assistants and home health aides on an as-needed basis—and transportation to doctors’ appointments.

“You may not want to drive or be able to drive in the future,” Ordover said. “And you might need help with medications” or face other medical issues, so having access to licensed professionals who can dispense meds or provide hands-on care is a big plus (as long as the extra cost is reasonable).

But don’t let your worst-case thinking deaden your sparkling social skills. Approach residents and solicit their opinions.

Katz suggests asking questions such as, “What are your favorite activities here?” and “What do you think of the construction of your unit?” Also note the total acreage of the community and whether there’s room to build more housing.

“If there’s the potential for new construction, that means lots of new people might be coming in,” Katz said. “That can be good, as new people tend to bond together. So find out the flow of people in and out” of the community.

If you’re socially or politically minded, note whether you fit in with the prevailing culture. Look for signs (literally—in windows and front yards) that neighbors embody your values.

Once you identify a few finalists—the two or three communities you’re most interested in—create a spreadsheet to compare them. Determine what amenities they offer—and if they are included in your fee.

“Wi-Fi and phone are not usually included,” said Ashley Hill, senior director of home care at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. “Is cable TV included? Who does the laundry or light housekeeping? How about meals? And parking?”

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