“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy says at the end of The Wizard of Oz, after she wakes up safe and sound in her bedroom in Kansas. Many people share Dorothy’s sentiments about their own home. For me, no matter how much I enjoy a trip or vacation, there’s a part of me that is always happy to be back in the comfort of my own house.

On a very primal level, there is something comforting about the security we feel in our homes. The familiar sights, smells, and sounds, not to mention the many fond memories, evoke a sense of safety and happiness for so many people. We have long-time neighbors we know and love. We know the closest grocery store and the best nearby restaurants. It’s just…easy.

This comfortability is among the reasons that a majority of seniors say they want to remain in their existing home as they age. It’s also why there’s a commonly held belief in the senior living industry that a person’s home is a retirement community’s biggest “competitor.” I’ve heard this sentiment countless times from retirement community representatives over the years.

But, I have to tell you: I’m not so sure that belief is completely accurate. Let me explain why.

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The heart of the matter

I think there is a larger question that retirement communities need to consider: What makes a house (or apartment or condominium) a home? Perhaps it’s not so much a resident’s actual home that is the competitor, but instead the fear that the retirement community will not feel like home.

It’s about so much more than walls and a roof over our head to protect us from the elements. It is also a figurative refuge from the storm — a place we feel safe and comfortable. A place where we connect on an emotional level and create memories with family, neighbors, and other loved ones, in good times and in bad. Home truly is where the heart is.

But with that being said, a home is also a tangible reflection of our personality — an expression of our personal style and preferences. We decorate our homes with colors we like, and we display cherished possessions for our own enjoyment and to share with visitors. In many ways, our homes are like a blank canvas where we create our own personalized vista.

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A hospitable environment for a new home

I think these two aspects — the emotional connection and the personalized aesthetic — are where the true competition between a senior’s existing home and a new home in a retirement community may come into play.

Ultimately, the onus is on senior living communities to ensure they are creating a truly welcoming environment that feels like not just a place to live, but a home to new residents. The mentality in the industry shouldn’t be to draw someone away from their current home with amenities, for example. Rather, the industry should ask what they are doing to ensure that new residents will truly feel at home in their community.

Here are just a few examples of ways some senior living communities help new residents settle in:

  • Providing easy access to a move-in coordinator who helps the new resident with the logistics of making their senior living move
  • Permitting residents to make cosmetic changes to their residence such as paint colors, window treatments, wall art, and other décor (with any applicable cost details spelled out clearly in the contract or marketing materials so there are no surprises)
  • Creating welcome committees or buddy programs that pair new residents with existing residents who can help them assimilate into the community. This is critical for some new residents who have more trouble acclimating
  • Installing sidewalks and walking trails to encourage walkability (which in turn encourages sociability and exercise)
  • Offering access to on-campus guest suites so that family members have a nearby place to stay
  • Allowing residents to bring beloved pets to live with them, and providing space to walk dogs and let them play
  • Creating community gardens

There are probably many other creative ideas not mentioned above. Of course, it takes time for any new house to become a home. And one can never replace the memories and emotional connection of your previous home. But isn’t that true anytime someone moves from one home to another? This tells me there is more at play when it comes to moving to a retirement community.

There’s no place like home

Some retirement communities are doing a wonderful job of helping new residents “nest” in their new home, using some or all of these tactics (as well as other ideas, I’m sure).

But the bottom line is that the senior living industry as a whole must better communicate the ways in which they help their residents feel comfortable and welcome. Yes, it is a change from the senior’s previous home, and change can be hard, but the community is there every step of the way to help the new resident make their new house truly feel like home.

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