What should you know before you move into an independent living senior community? To find out, I asked a long-time resident. But not just any resident.
Len Bachman has been living in an upscale 313-unit independent senior community in Chevy Chase, Maryland for about a decade. In some ways, he’s very typical of his neighbors. Now an active 89, he moved in not long after his wife died and soon after he suffered a serious leg injury that required a couple of months of rehab and home care.
But Len also brings the careful eye of a physician and health policy expert to the issues of senior living. Over a long career, he was the Secretary of Health for the state of Pennsylvania and chief medical officer of the U.S. Public Health Service.
Len has seen many fellow residents become increasingly frail –a common phenomenon in independent living. At first, people may struggle with the decision to move into a senior community. But once they make the choice, they build relationships, settle in, and are extremely reluctant to move.
The lesson: Don’t just pick a place that works for you today. Try to imagine what it will be like as you age.
Before you make any move, always spend time with the people who live in the community (out of earshot of the marketing staff). And Len suggests you consider these six issues as you shop for a new home:
Rent or “buy?” Rentals have obvious advantages: You may not need to sell your home to come up with a big downpayment or entry fee. It is easy to leave if you are not happy with your choice. You don’t need to worry about maintenance. But expect the rent to increase every year. And if you outlive your assets and can no longer afford the rent, you will have to move.
Another choice is a continuing care community. The financial structures of these models vary widely but often you’ll pay an entry fee of several hundred thousand dollars as well as a monthly fee. You are not buying real estate, rather you are acquiring the right to live in your apartment, as well as in assisted living or a nursing facility that share the same campus. When you move or die, you or your heirs may get back some or all of your upfront payment. Some communities have a special fund to help support long-time residents who can no longer afford the monthly fees.
Finally, you can purchase a downsized home or a condo, either in a senior community or in a multi-generational building or neighborhood.
Cost: Comparison shopping isn’t easy but try to compare amenities as well as apartment size. And expect your costs to rise over the years, and often in unexpected ways. For instance, Len estimates that in his building close to 30 percent of residents rely on a private duty aide for some part of the day and 5 to 10 percent have full-time 24/7 aides. On top of the rent, this can be enormously expensive–easily approaching the cost of a nursing home.
Your neighbors: You will be spending a lot of time with your new neighbors. In many facilities, you’ll share meals and attend events with a relatively small group of people. Before you move in, take some time to learn about the culture of your new community.
Think about what’s most important to you. Do you want to be surrounded by people who are like you—maybe those who share your religious or professional background. Or are you more interested in diversity and being with people whose experiences are different from yours?
The activities of a facility will be driven in large part by the culture of its residents. Are the Sunday afternoon concerts bluegrass or opera? Are there group trips to the ballgame? Do people play bridge or poker? Are there classes, and are they interesting to you? Do residents lead programs or sit passively while others lecture? Every facility has a calendar. Check it out. And sit in on a few events.
Some facilities even have a guest apartment that’s available for a night or two. It’s a good way to learn what the place really is like.
Location, location, location: Like any real estate transaction, your choice may come down to location. Is your new home close to family and friends? Is it in an urban setting, the suburbs, or a more rural area? Is it open to the wider community, or closed to its neighbors? Especially for active seniors, this can be enormously important.
Do you want to be close to public transportation and an easy walk from restaurants and theaters? Or are you looking to escape the noise and bustle of a big city? Do you find a rural campus safe and secure or mind-numbingly dull? Remember: As you and your friends age, driving will be a growing challenge. When you first move in, old friends may be able to drive to you, and you to them. But over the years that may become impossible.
Meals: Many independent living facilities offer on-site dining rooms. And good food matters. Is it healthy? Is it tasty? Does the facility vary the menu frequently?
The senior living business has a marketing phrase: Buying the lobby. The idea is elders—and their adult children—will make choices based on their first impression. So operators spend money on wood-paneling and fresh-cut flowers in public spaces. Len’s advice: Get past the lobby and learn about the culture of the community.