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How to Choose a Retirement Community

Women take a stroll in their retirement community

When contemplating a move to a retirement community, it can be helpful to understand the options available. Many people associate the idea of a retirement community with the proverbial “old folks home.” In reality, seniors have a wide assortment of options to choose from, from a regular community with an age requirement for residents to complete nursing care. Here is a look at the spectrum and what each type of retirement community includes.

55+ Communities

Fifty-five-plus communities are a popular option where apartments and single-family homes are organized around specific services and amenities for independent individuals over 55. According to Statista, the United States has more than 22,000 senior living communities. Florida leads the pack with the highest number. The Villages Florida is the largest such community in the world, with more than 60,000 homes. But similar communities exist all around the country.

Linda Millelot and her husband, Jack, both 69, made the move from northern New Jersey to Middletown, Delaware, about five years ago when they were ready to retire and wanted to find a less expensive area since Delaware has no sales tax and lower cost-of-living. They quickly found a new over-55 community where the residents were “young and active.”

“There is anything you want here,” says Linda Millelot. “Jack is on the outdoor committee and plays pickleball and bocce. You can play cards, use the fitness center and pool, do yoga or Zumba, go bowling, or join all kinds of clubs—or start your own.”

They bought a single-family home in the community they liked right away and love that it includes all lot maintenance.

“This is an active, close-knit community not too far from our family, and we are absolutely happy with our choice,” she adds.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) 

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) may have different components, but mostly, they offer either apartments or single-family homes where the resident is self-sufficient and independent. Included is a graduated series of care options, such as assisted living and skilled nursing, and/or memory care, that residents can take advantage of when and if they need them in the future. Prices and amenities vary.

When Edna Kline, 80, decided to move from her Clinton, New Jersey, home of more than 50 years, the decision wasn’t easy, but the move to Gastonia, North Carolina, brought her close to her children and grandchildren. She didn’t want to buy another home. Instead, she put her name on a waiting list for a local CCRC.

Kline’s community will provide her with three meals daily, many activities, and housekeeping and transportation services. While the buy-in cost is not cheap, she feels the CCRC is well worth it. She also likes the facility for its options for healthcare should she need it.

“I love all the activities they offer to help you improve yourself, like classes, clubs, movies, and talks. And the help getting to local shopping, restaurants, and doctor visits will be perfect,” she says.”

Increasing Levels of Care

According to the National Institute on Aging, assisted living facilities provide in-between care for those who need some daily help but not as much as would be provided in a nursing home. Residents may live in their own room or apartment and share common areas, such as dining rooms, libraries, housekeeping and laundry, and social activities. Increasing levels of care have corresponding higher fee schedules.

A less common type of facility, known as residential care facilities or group homes, usually has fewer than two dozen residents who often share rooms. Meals and personal care are provided 24/7, but medical care is not.

Nursing homes, also known as skilled nursing facilities, provide various health care and personal care, including meals, help with daily activities, and physical, speech, and occupational rehabilitation therapies. Often used for short-term stays after a hospitalization, skilled nursing facilities may also be the retirement community needed for someone with ongoing conditions requiring that level of care.

Questions to Ask and When to Ask Them

When you start thinking about moving to a retirement community, it helps to clarify what you want and need. Answering the following questions is a good place to start your search:

  • Finances. How much can you afford? Be sure you know what is included in the monthly fee.
  • Location. Do you want to be close to family, friends, doctors, and community activities?
  • Care. What level of care will you need now and in the future?

Planning ahead can help save time, money, and the heartache of making a choice that may be wrong for you in the long run. Talk to trusted healthcare providers, local aging experts, social workers, religious leaders, and family and friends for advice. Call nursing homes, retirement communities, and CCRCs to get their prices, amenities, and a tour.

The NIA/NIH has advice about state and federal programs that may help seniors pay for short- and long-term care, including preventive services, doctor visits, home health care, and other health-related costs.

Knowing When to Ask for Help

While Kline and the Millelots made their choices independently, some adults may benefit from the help of an expert. Tony G. Cheikosman founded Care Senior Placement in California five years ago and offered help to seniors and their families when wading through the many options out there.

He encourages families to start early, but since everyone’s situation is different, he suggests that individuals and their loved ones research and be honest with themselves about what they need and can afford.

Even communities within the same category can present different opportunities and areas to avoid when deciding who is right for which type of facility or level of care.

“When I work with families who are trying to help a loved one find the right care, the biggest assumption I run into are family members who may not be as involved and who think of their loved one as they were years ago, leading to denial of what is really needed,” he says. “Be realistic about what is needed as well as the fees that vary widely based on location.”

Additional Resources

The National Institutes of Health / National Institute on Aging (NIH/NIA) provide many resources for adults who are getting ready to choose a retirement living option that’s right for them. The Eldercare Locator lists a wealth of information and is a good place to start when considering a move.

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