So, you’ve been thinking a retirement community could make sense for you. It can be an attractive senior living option for a number of reasons: the social interactions and relationships, activities and amenities, care services (when available), peace of mind … and the list goes on. But how do you choose the right community for you? And where do you even start? Here are four steps to put you on the right path.

Step 1: Decide if you want to rent, own, or something in between.

Retirement communities can take many forms. Some are basically planned neighborhoods for those age 55 and older (or sometimes 62 and older). With these, you buy the home as you would any other home, and then you may pay HOA dues for exterior maintenance and certain amenities, similar to a lot of other non-age restricted communities.

Other retirement communities are apartment-style with monthly rent payments or possibly annual leases. And still others — typically called continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) or life plan communities — may require an entry fee that is often refundable under certain conditions, as well as a monthly fee. To make matters more confusing, some CCRCs also offer ownership and rental options.

Your ultimate decision about which of the above makes the most sense for you also will very likely depend on the types of care and services available, which leads to the next step…

>> Free Download: Retirement Living Decision Chart (PDF)

Step 2: Identify your long-term objective.

Are you okay with the possibility of having to move again in the future if your health changes significantly? Or do you prefer to live someplace where you most likely will not have to move again? This can be a crucial question to answer as you consider your senior living options.

As you look at various retirement communities, it’s important to know what types of care services, if any, are available if you should need them in the future.

Most CCRCs (or “life plan communities”), for example, provide residents with access to a full continuum of care, including independent living, assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing care. Having all levels of care available on the same campus may be particularly appealing if you are single and/or if you do not have family nearby. Within these communities, your healthcare or long-term care needs may require that you eventually move from your independent living home into the on-site care facility, but you’re typically able to remain within the gates of the same community.

Other retirement communities may only offer assisted living or memory care but stop short of providing skilled nursing or rehab. And yet other retirement communities may not provide any care services at all.

>> Related: What is a “Continuum of Care”?

Step 3: Determine if the retirement community is a good fit for you.

The culture of a retirement community is an important deciding factor. This includes not just the culture of the residents but also the values of the entire organization, including management and staff. This is a place you will be living during your retirement years, so you want to be sure it feels comfortable and welcoming. In short: It should feel like a place you want to call “home.” But how can you tell if it will be a good match?

Before making your final decision to move there, do everything you can to get a feel for the culture and lifestyle offered at the community. Attend any events or activities that are open to prospective residents. Ask to speak to current residents. Find out if there is a strong line of communication between management and residents. Do the residents have a voice in the community?

Another consideration to factor in is resident turnover. This was pointed out to me recently by a prospective resident who was shopping retirement communities. She described that it was important to her that the friends she makes in the retirement community are there with her for the long term — an important consideration.

As a general rule, residents of life plan communities tend to stay longer than rental-only community residents. This is mainly due to the larger financial commitment and access to a full continuum of care provided by a life plan community.

>> Related: How Do I Know If I’ll Be Happy Living in This CCRC?

Step 4: Explore the quality of care.

Depending on the types of care provided by the retirement community (if any), it’s crucial to be sure that the care provided is high quality and dependable. Afterall, if you have decided you prefer a community that has on-site care, you want to be certain you’ll get what you’re paying for should a care need arise.

This task is similar to the research you might do for any other healthcare facility, such as a hospital or stand-alone nursing care center. If the community’s healthcare facility is Medicare-certified (as opposed to private pay only), then review their Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rating. Another good resource for unbiased information on quality is the long-term care ombudsman program for the state in which the retirement community is located.

For some first-hand reconnaissance, current residents can be a helpful source of information. If they themselves haven’t been cared for in the community’s healthcare center, you can bet they know someone who has. You also can inquire with management about their employee turnover rate (high staff turnover can be indicative of fundamental issues with the healthcare center), any incident reports, and their care philosophies.

Finally, if you feel comfortable with it, I strongly encourage prospective residents to visit the healthcare center for the community they are considering. (Admittedly, this may be a challenge in the COVID era.) You’ll want to observe if the nursing staff appears happy and engaged, if the facility looks clean and comfortable, and if the residents seem well cared for.

>> Related: How to Analyze the Quality of a CCRC Healthcare Center

Making an informed retirement community choice

Choosing a retirement community is a big decision. It potentially will impact your finances, happiness, and health for many years to come. You obviously want to choose wisely, and that means making the most informed decision possible with the information you have.

There are many practical aspects to consider — such as price, location, or amenities — when making this choice, but by working through the four steps above, you will be well on your way to selecting the community that is the best option for your unique needs.

For information about CCRCs and other senior living options, and more guidance on how to choose the one that is right for you, visit the “Learn” section of myLifeSite.

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