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Senior Citizen's Guide

Making the Retirement Community Decision
A Resident's Perspective

I am writing this with a bias. My wife and I moved into a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) two years ago when we were in our early seventies. Since selling our home and going through the downsizing required, we have had many conversations with friends and relatives who still live independently in their own homes and apartments. Frankly, a large portion of these people think we were foolish to move. Their arguments come at us from many directions.

A classic definition of old age: "Ten years older than you are today." Sometime between retirement from daily working for a living and the onset of chronic illnesses that often occur in old age, most people develop a serious "blind spot." They say to themselves: My spouse and I are getting along pretty well. Sure, we have some aches and pains, but most people do in their late sixties or early seventies. We have planned our retirement income so that we can lead a comfortable life style. We are still enjoying travel. Our home is comfortable and a perfect place to display all the wonderful things we have accumulated in our lives. We enjoy the freedom and opportunities for fun and relaxation that are presented to us. Yes, things are pretty good and we expect them to continue that way for the foreseeable future. In other words, why should we change now when things are going so well?

This is not only a false premise but a dangerous one, too. Time drones on inexorably. We may be drifting along on a tranquil river of life, but someplace ahead of us we are almost sure to encounter white water rapids or even a waterfall. No matter how much we may deny this fact, it is true that nothing stays the same. While we are healthy and vigorous today, it cannot stay that way forever. All of us know this intellectually but we are reluctant to accept it emotionally. Acceptance of this truism forces us to face our mortality. It also forces a review of alternative future courses of action, some of which may be difficult or unpleasant.

I told you I speak with a bias. Since making our decision about our future (we obviously believe we made the correct call) we have a two-part mantra that we earnestly impress on our friends:

We can regale you with story after story about people who did not heed our mantra. Women have told us about trying to convince their husbands to move to a retirement community—with no success. Then, after the man died, the woman was forced to complete the move on her own. Believe me, it is a much tougher move made alone.

Disregarding the second part of the mantra is even more evident. People wait, procrastinate and dawdle until there is really no alternative left except leaving their home and moving to a place that provides required care. We have many examples of folks who were absolutely overwhelmed just by the thought of organizing a move out of their home. Not only do they now lack the skills to plan such an event but they cannot bear the thought of leaving their "stuff" and downsizing. In this case, the move often becomes a major problem for their children and grandchildren.

Let's discuss the role children often play in this process. They sometimes have a "blind spot," too. They think of their parents as getting older but never being old. Then, one day, they look up and discover that their parents are old and frail. The children see that Mom and Dad are struggling with the daily chores of life, perhaps starting to have obvious memory problems and no longer able to handle all that is required to live in their home independently. This is both a sad and troubling moment for the kids. The children begin the painful discussion about what to do.

Finally, what I characterize as "The Telephone Call" takes place. The children get on a conference call together and attempt to answer the question: "What are we going to do with Mom and Dad? They can't possibly live by themselves in their house any longer." It may be too late to consider independent living in a retirement community. The physical and medical needs of the parent(s) may already be so great that a different level of care is required. A key window of opportunity has been missed. Often this results in anxiety while the children move the parents from one facility to another as the care needs rapidly increase.

We have seen this happen in our own extended family. The kids may be required to expend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to find new, appropriate care facilities as the health of the parents quickly diminishes. This type of situation may create serious financial burdens, inordinate guilt and a terrible sense of frustration as the children try to give their parents a reasonable and dignified quality of life in a downward spiraling environment.

There is no denying that making a move into a retirement community—under the best of circumstances—is difficult and often traumatic. Most people will sell their home before moving in. That in itself can be a very difficult and trying proposition. What is the current state of the real estate market? Is the timing of the sale beneficial to the seller? Preparing the house for sale often requires "sprucing up," painting and taking care of long deferred repairs. There is tension associated with keeping a house ready for inspection every day by potential buyers.

From observation, most new move-ins finally "come up for air" in about 60-90 days. Jokingly, we refer to the three phases of moving in: (1) physically getting all your stuff into the apartment; (2) finally getting all the boxes empty and things put away; (3) trying to remember what you brought with you and where you put it. No matter how tough things seem at the beginning, it does get better and you will begin to really enjoy your new home and surroundings. If you're like most, you will quickly conclude that moving to this retirement community was one of the best decisions you (or your kids) ever made. The people are generally very nice, the food is good, there are abundant activities (way more than you can participate in), you feel secure and safe and you are in control of your own life.

I have referred to "parents," "Mom and Dad," and "we" almost exclusively. This transition to retirement community living is not just for couples. We have many singles living where we do who are enjoying healthy, vibrant and interesting lives. My focus is merely that my wife and I made this decision together and moved here with each other's help. Everything I am saying applies equally to singles.

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