There are certain adages I distinctly recall my mother saying when I was a child. Among her repertoire of time-tested axioms: “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “Things are not always what they seem,” plus, of course, “You won’t know until you try.” (And yes, in a karmic twist, I now say these exact same things to my own children.)
Clichés are repeated again and again because most often, they are true. And it just so happens that these three sayings don’t just apply to the important lessons of childhood — many adults would do well to adhere to these proverbs as they go through life.
In fact, it recently struck me that seniors who are considering their various senior living options may want to keep these very adages in mind as they ponder the possibility of moving to a retirement community, such as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community).
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
When you hear the phrase “retirement community,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you envision the nursing home your elderly parents or grandparents were in, with people staring at a TV or eating off of cafeteria-style trays. Or, maybe you think of “a bunch of old people” sitting around all day or playing bingo. (For the record, I think bingo is pretty great!) If this is what you imagine a CCRC or other active living-type retirement community to be like, I would recommend you take time to learn about today’s retirement communities and how, for many, they can even offer a healthier and more holistic lifestyle than the alternatives.
Many people have a negative preconception of senior living that may not match what is currently available in today’s CCRC marketplace. Yes, some of the community’s residents may require a wheelchair or walker (and that’s perfectly okay because these residents are still people, often living joyful and productive lives), and the on-site availability of a continuum of care services for those who need it is one of the many appealing aspects of a CCRC. But the reality is that a majority of CCRC residents are living active, highly fulfilling lives — a dynamic lifestyle that is encouraged and even supported by the CCRC itself.
Today’s CCRCs offer resident-led activities from lecture series and continuing education classes to volunteer tutoring and various affinity groups…and much more — programs that keep residents mentally and physically active and involved in their larger community.
And that institutional food on a cafeteria tray you were picturing? Retirement communities of today have begun to address this stereotype with gusto. Indeed, improvements to both the dining atmosphere and food quality are hot topics across the industry. In most CCRCs, you will find an array of healthy, freshly prepared menu options, served in on-site settings that range from a dining room, to a bistro café, to a casual pub. In some CCRCs, you may even enjoy gourmet meals prepared by five-star chefs using fresh, locally grown produce.
As you can see, like my mom advised, don’t judge a book by its cover — and don’t assume the realities of a CCRC will match the outdated idea you have in your mind.
Things are not always what they seem.
Which leads me to my next point: Making an informed decision about ANY topic involves putting all options on the table, gathering the facts about each, weighing pros and cons, and making an educated decision. This methodical process of conducting in-depth research is especially important for your senior living decision.
For example, choosing to remain in your home may seem like a wise choice on the surface. You are comfortable there, both mentally and physically. You may own your home outright- although this is , and it seems like the most practical, economical option. Furthermore, you are still independent and active, so you don’t “need” to move to a retirement community.
Yet, many people who have chosen to move to a retirement community report that their net monthly expenses are barely more than they were spending previously; sometimes even less. And they describe how their lives are healthier and more carefree, with the bonus of developing additional friendships with residents who have common interests and shared life experiences and accomplishments.
And then there are the “what ifs.” What if you are no longer to manage the upkeep of your home — the housework, the yardwork, the day-to-day maintenance needs? Who will do those chores? Beyond that, what if you experience a decline in health– either gradually or suddenly– that prevents you from navigating the stairs to your bedroom, makes it difficult to dress and bathe yourself, or even requires skilled nursing care? Who will assist you with those activities of daily living that you can no longer manage on your own?
Are these caregiving responsibilities you want to put on your adult children or other loved ones, and if not, how much will it cost if you need to pay for either part-time or round-the-clock care in your home? Bear in mind that the national average cost of in-home care is around $3,800 per month, based on just 44 hours of care per week, or around 6 hours per day. Adding in evening hours and overnight care could increase this cost substantially. And what about if home renovations are ultimately needed? This adds even more to the cost.
On the surface, it may appear that a CCRC will be costlier than just remaining in the home you currently live in, but when you tally up the costs of upkeep and the care services that may be required one day, things indeed are not always what they seem.
>> Related: 3 Reasons Why Aging in Place May Not Be Cheaper
You won’t know until you try.
Although a retirement community like a CCRC may not ultimately be the right choice for everyone, I think everyone should at least consider it as an option and then make an informed decision. And while doing diligent research is important to understand contract terms, services, and amenities, the best way to determine if a particular community is right for you is to experience it first-hand.
Once you have narrowed down the possible CCRC options to a select few, spend as much time as you can on their campuses. Take a tour…possibly more than one, and at different times of day. Eat in every one of the dining options, multiple times. Many CCRCs will even allow you to participate in community activities and use some of their facilities if you put down a fairly modest deposit. Use the fitness center. Walk the sidewalks and trails around the community. Talk to current residents to get their impressions of what it’s like to live there.
Many communities offer a guest suite where you can even spend the night on-site to get a true feeling for what it is like to live in the community. Is it clean, up-to-date, and quiet? Also, as you are there, observe how staff is treated by management and whether residents seem to be embraced and well-respected. Is it a vibrant community? Does the culture feel right for you? Some providers are clearly better than others, and thus, you can learn a lot about a CCRC by experiencing their guest suite.
I recently contributed to a New York Times article that addresses the topic of people who were at-best skeptical about moving to a retirement community. In the article, one community resident acknowledged that he had once said to his wife of 45 years, “By God, I’ll sit in the burned-out, firebombed ruins of this home before anybody pulls me out!”
After years of back and forth, he begrudgingly made the move to a retirement community to appease his wife, but since they have settled in, he notes, “I’ve done a 180 on this.” A few days after moving in, the man explained, “It just hit me: I really wished my mother or my sister or my aunt could have had this experience, to feel that safe and secure. At that point, it was like a light bulb going on. It was an instant turnaround for me.”
I always like to take the approach that there’s no single senior living choice that’s right for everyone, and ultimately, a retirement community may not be the right choice for you, but when you really weigh things out and hear stories from so many people who are living vibrant and active lives at retirement communities, it’s hard to think that more people shouldn’t at least give it a look with an open mind.
Hey, just like my mother used to say, you won’t know until you try!
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