How to Find the Right Retirement Community

Everyone has a different idea of retirement. Some dream of afternoons on the golf course, a Mediterranean cruise or more time to putter in the garden. Others look forward to spending their hard-earned leisure volunteering for charitable causes. Still others plan to spend more time with their grandchildren.

But, for almost everyone, perhaps the single biggest issue is: “Where will I live in retirement?” Criteria for the “right” community are as varied as the folks researching the options. Among them: lifestyle, location, amenities, rules to live by and, first and foremost, cost. Comfort and carefree living in your later years chiefly pivot on wealth and health. The two combined drive the choice of residence.

Some people plan to retire in their current homes – or to downsize to a smaller place in their current community or elsewhere. Others, especially as they get into their 70s and beyond, start thinking of the comfort and convenience of some kind of senior living arrangement.

Retirement community options demand a tour de force in careful research from future residents and their families. Since most places require substantial, non-refundable fees, the trap to definitely avoid is when you "buy in haste and repent at leisure."

Here are some of the most important factors to consider in your search.                                                             

Options for Aging

Real-life choices run the gamut from subsidized senior housing complexes (only those below an income threshold are eligible), to completely independent senior (usually, those over age 55) apartments or homes. For more options, see Alternatives To Nursing Homes.

The continuing care retirement community (CCRC) is a versatile solution. These residential developments offer independent-living apartments, cottages or semi-detached houses, plus assisted living units for those who need a bit of help, as well as a nursing home facility for anyone needing care round-the-clock. Typically, the retiree moves in while mentally and physically independent, shifting to more intense care facilities if needed.

A CCRC is the most popular choice for most aging Americans. It is prudent to assume (and statistically supported) that most of us will eventually need extra care in our activities of daily living. One key benefit: Unlike assisted living facilities, which customarily force seniors who need more care than the facility provides to move out (usually to a nursing home), CCRCs generally allow residents to stay somewhere within the community regardless of the level of care they need, though they might require moving to a different section under certain circumstances.

Costs

Once someone stops working, income is usually diminished and almost certainly fixed. Except for modest cost-of-living adjustments, post-retirement dollars aren't likely to fluctuate much. Savings may need to last for decades. Even those with a comfortable nest egg must consider the possibility that expenses will outpace inflation. (Also, care costs tend to rise astonishingly in the last years of life.) Retirement community management takes such factors into account. It is common for residences to require a financial assessment as a condition of acceptance. Therefore, while a large sum of money may exist in an applicant's portfolio, illiquidity or restrictions on accessing the money may be a game-changer.

Typical retirement facility costs include:

Move-in fees (also called entry or buy-in fees). Some places charge upwards of hundreds of thousands dollars for little more than an invitation to move in. In some cases, the move-in fee covers a specified amount of time in assisted living or nursing care (a few days to a year if needed to recover from medical procedures, for example). Entry fees vary from one community to another, and even within each community. For instance, a single person moving into a studio apartment normally pays a much smaller sum than a couple moving into a two-bedroom.

Moving into a new home is stressful under any circumstances You might want to enlist the services of a senior move manager to help with the transition. See Senior Move Managers: An Overview.

Rent fluctuates depending on square footage, services, amenities, zip code and demand. In a continuing care community, rent is lowest for independent living units and highest for nursing care. The rent may include utilities, transportation, housekeeping, linens and meals. It's always good to ask about limits on rent increases.

Meals. Many seniors don’t want to cook every day. One of the benefits of a retirement community is the option to dine with friends and neighbors in a common, restaurant-like dining room. In some communities rent includes a certain number of meals, and additional meals (often at subsidized prices) may be purchased separately. 

Getting Out

What if you decide you don’t like the place or you die a month after moving in? Many entry fees are completely non-refundable. Others are refundable on a sliding scale for the first few years, and then become non-refundable. Still others trade an equity stake for the fee, which can be sold by heirs.

Termination policies for independent living facilities tend to follow landlord-tenant laws in the locality in which they operate. Know your rights.

Eviction rules are more complex for assisted living and nursing facilities. The rules tend to favor the resident, but loopholes exist. For example, a facility can only evict when:

  • The resident requires medical care that the home cannot provide.
  • The resident’s condition has improved and nursing care is no longer needed.
  • The resident endangers the health or safety of others in the home.
  • The resident has failed to pay.
  • The home closes.

Point 3 is critical when the onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s or some other condition renders the retiree unable to live alone or with family. Find out what procedures are in place to protect you or your loved one under all conditions. A resident may not be evicted for merely being disruptive or difficult.

Staffing and Security

Much of a retirement community's happiness depends on staff quality. Ask how many attendants are on the clock at any given moment and whether a nurse or health aide is available 24/7. If the facility offers the use of a personal aide for a few hours per day or week, find out the cost, how payment is handled and whether you can make a personal selection from among available staff.

Also, ask about services the various members of the staff are expected to perform. Is there someone available to call a taxi or help carry in groceries, for instance?

A key detail is staff training on how to deal with physically aggressive behavior on the part of residents. In a continuing care facility, excellent supervision and well-planned emergency procedures are non-negotiable and must be operational round the clock.

Services and Amenities

Some of the more common fringe benefits include:

  • Continuing education classes
  • Fitness center and/or pool
  • Community gardens or a greenhouse
  • Lectures and presentations
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Group trips to local museums, theaters and concerts
  • Juice bar or coffee cart
  • Housekeeping
  • Scheduled maintenance of residence (painting, replacing carpet)
  • Transportation

Ask probing questions. Does courtesy transportation meet demand? Marketing materials won’t tell you if the facility only has one vehicle that is booked solid a week or two in advance. Similarly, free housekeeping services may be limited to just an hour or two per month.

Lifestyle

What’s most important? Some want a spacious home with two offices. Others prefer a small place within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Still others want access to a pool.

Consider how others’ lifestyle choices might affect you. Moving from a single, detached family home to one or two rooms requires psychological adjustment. An apartment in a continuing care community may be culture shock for someone moving from a big house in the suburbs – but at the same time, perfect for a person who no longer wants the responsibility of fixing things. Most retirement communities also take care of yard work, snow removal, and exterior and interior maintenance.

Mobility declines with age. Keep a wary eye out for stairs (even a single step can be an obstacle). Narrow passageways are difficult to navigate with a walker or wheelchair, and bathtubs can trap and trip (opt for a step-in shower with room for a chair). Look for an emergency button or pull-cord in every room of each living unit.

In addition to the free shuttle, where is the nearest bus route? If you still drive, look at the distance from the parking area to the building entrance, and notice the ground surface and any landings that have to be navigated. Remember you're shopping for your future self as well as the person you are now.

Will family members want to visit? Many communities have rules regarding residents and/or long-term guests who are not of retirement age. Visits are usually limited to a specific number of days per month or year.

Does the community permit pets and are there any limitations (number, size, breed)? You may want to bring your pet or very much not want to live where pets are permitted.

Location

Location really depends on lifestyle. If you plan to travel frequently or entertain out-of-town guests, proximity to an airport makes sense. Some common health issues demand a warmer, dryer climate. Life in a small town or out in the country is quiet and relaxing, as long as you're not too far from quality healthcare facilities. A more urban setting is suited to anyone who wants to maintain a busy city-dweller’s lifestyle. Proximity to a college, or a university town location, means there will be opportunities to take classes or go to lectures and other events.

The Bottom Line

This litany of do's and don'ts is the tip of the iceberg. Forethought, advance planning, a lot of research, and a bit of soul-searching provide the best answers long before you sign on the dotted line.  Unfortunately, some retirement communities restrict unescorted access: You may not be allowed to freely explore or talk to residents.

Finding out what a place is really like requires creativity. Take the sales staff’s pitch with the appropriate amount of salt. Ask questions, and if any satisfactory answers elude, move on. Query friends and family. Your circle could be a great resource for information. Try to eat a few meals in the facility and see if the residents seem like people you would enjoy living among – and whether the food is appealing.

The research is worth it. A retired naval officer relocated to a retirement community near the mid-Atlantic coast of Virginia. When asked for his frank opinion on the facilities, he replied, "It's OK. We're happy here. But if I have to characterize the place I'd say it is like God's waiting room with a meal plan."

There can, and ought to be, more to your retirement home than that. For more information, check out Some Of America's Most Expensive And Affordable Retirement Homes.