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The Inside Scoop on Choosing a Retirement Community

The internet is full of advice on retirement planning, but information on retirement communities can be downright confusing. If your current home no longer fits your needs, and ads or mailers from retirement communities have piqued your interest, this blog is for you. Here’s the inside scoop on how to begin the search and how to determine which community is right for you.

Start with a Wish List
Searching for a retirement community is similar in many ways to the search you made years ago for your current home. Start with location. Do you want to move near loved ones? Would you prefer a suburban or an urban setting? Do you want to stay near your current neighborhood?

Second, determine how much you are willing and able to spend on a monthly basis and how much of your financial resources you can devote on a long-term basis.

From here, you can begin to envision the amount of living space you would need or prefer, plus the level of amenities and services you would enjoy. Amenities typically include a dining program, recreational facilities and lifestyle options like outings, entertainment and activities.

Begin Your Search Well in Advance
If you’re seriously considering moving out of your current home, give yourself adequate time to look. The search for a retirement community averages about two years for most people. You’ll want to thoroughly research your final top choices and make several visits in order to get a good feel for the staff, the other residents and how well you think you’ll fit into the community — including how well it meets your lifestyle needs and interests. Some communities have waiting lists, especially for the most popular floor plans.

Get Up-to-Speed on the Different Types of Retirement Communities
Retirement communities come in different shapes, sizes and offerings, so before you begin your search, it’s a good idea to get in the know about the various types of communities that exist in most U.S. cities.

  • Active Adult/Over 55 Communities
    These communities typically appeal to independent, active adults who are often newly retired. You’ll tend to find them based around a golf course, a marina, or other recreational facilities, and they offer a wide array of social opportunities. In over-55 communities, you own the house or condo you live in and pay HOA fees and all or most of the maintenance costs.
  • Rental Retirement Communities
    In a rental retirement community, you’ll usually pay a month’s rent in advance and a monthly rent for your garden home, condo or apartment. Your rent will include services, such as transportation, some meals, basic utilities and maintenance. You will also have access to a variety of amenities, like beauty salons and recreational facilities, as well as social events and activities. However, should you need to move from Independent Living to a higher level of care, your monthly fees will increase to the market rate. Moreover, some rental communities provide only one senior living option, such as Independent Living. If you choose this type of “one level” community, it means you’ll have to move to a different community if your needs change. This situation can be particularly problematic for couples, when only one needs to move to a higher level of care.
  • Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC)
    Continuing Care Retirement Communities have become increasingly popular due to the safety net they provide for “aging in place.” These communities provide multiple senior living options, including Independent Living, Assisted Living, Memory Support, and Skilled Nursing and Rehab Services — all on one campus.  CCRCs can operate as either a rental community or an entry fee community. In a rental CCRC community, you pay market rates for each senior living option as you move along the continuum. By contrast, an entry fee community provides predictable monthly expenses as your needs increase in exchange for an upfront entry fee. Average entry fees range from approximately $107,277 on the low end to $427,054 on the high end (across a blend of contract types). The fees are refundable, generally at a 90% rate, should you decide to leave the community, or are paid into your estate. Unlike a rental CCRC, there are certain tax benefits to the entry fee CCRC. The IRS allows you to deduct a portion of the entrance fee and monthly service fees as a prepaid medical expense. If you have long-term care insurance, your policy will also pay earned benefits to help cover the cost of your care as your needs increase.

How to Start the Search
A good place to begin your online search is Where You Live Matters. This website provides a wealth of information about senior living options. Within it, you’ll also find a helpful Exploration Guide that provides in-depth information on the services provided within each level of senior living. Several checklists are also available for download to use as you visit different communities.

Other helpful sites include seniorly.com and seniorlifestyle.com. Seniorly.com not only provides a list of retirement communities by type in the locations of your choice, but also provides an estimated monthly fee for each. If you prefer to search by printed materials, pick up a copy of Senior Living News at a local retailer or browse brochures at your local senior activities center. Family members can also help with your search, as can professional services such as Oasis Senior Advisors.

You may find a wide range of monthly fees as you visit different communities, so make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, such as the same number of meals, the availability of transportation, frequency of housekeeping, laundry and linen services and the types of utilities included.  Ask about fees and how they increase over time. Fee structures vary quite a bit from one community to another.

Many senior living communities look the same, so take the deep dive into the details as you shop. Taste the food. Talk to other residents about their experiences. Ask the tough questions, such as “What would you change here if you could?”

It’s also wise to ask about the financial health of the company or organization that operates the community. Not-for-profit communities generally invest any excess funds into enhanced facilities and services since there is no profit incentive. On the other hand, a for-profit CCRC may have enormous financial strength behind it. It pays to become familiar with the organizational structure of any community under consideration.

To assess a retirement home’s financial health, ask about its occupancy rate. If it’s above 90 percent, the community should have a sound financial foundation. Investigate the community’s debt rating, profitability, and cash reserves. Ask how involved residents are in major financial decisions.

Ask, too, about resident rights and how residents can have input into decisions. Is the management accessible if you have a concern? Does the community have a resident council, and can you meet one or more of the members?

Ask about the lifestyle. What kinds of social activities, outings and entertainment are offered? Ask to see a current activity calendar and meet the Lifestyle Director. Visit the fitness center and ask the trainers to explain their programs. You want to determine if the community has a commitment to promoting wellness in residents. After all, aging does not have to mean slowing down!

Finally, ask about credentials and affiliations. Check the Senior Living Certification Commission to see if the community is a participating organization. The SLCC oversees The Certified Director of Assisted Living (CDAL) credential for the Assisted Living industry. Ask if the community is affiliated with a well-respected faith or accreditation organization. Does its mission statement include a commitment to excellence, to respect and compassion?

In the end, the community you choose should be in line with your values and the lifestyle you seek, in the location you desire at a price you can afford. It should make you feel supported, independent and invigorated. It’s a life change you should look forward to, and for good reason. The Office of Disability, Aging and Long-Term Care for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found in its research that residents who live in retirement communities are healthier and live longer than people who choose to remain in their homes. So what are you waiting for? Start searching!

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