Weighing the pros and cons of moving out of your home and into any kind of retirement community is a major undertaking. Once you move out of your current home, there's little chance you'll be able to move back. Moving costs can also be considerable, especially if you choose a retirement community with a buy-in fee. Here are a few of the emotional, physical, and financial aspects to consider if you're trying to make this decision now or thinking about your future.

Key Takeaways

  • Moving to a retirement community requires a major leap of faith that the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks of the unknown.
  • The range of retirement-living opportunities and price points may be broader than you think, so it's worth researching the possibilities thoroughly before writing off the idea in favor of permanently aging in place.
  • In terms of your health, retirement communities can be safer in some ways than remaining in your home and more dangerous in others.

Staying at Home: Buy-In and Ongoing Costs

If you stay at home, then you've already bought in and already have a good idea of what your ongoing costs will be for insurance, taxes, and maintenance. Additional costs you might incur as you age include renovations and in-home health care. To price out some of these costs, you can get quotes from contractors and research home health care costs in your area.

Specifically, you may want to ask contractors to estimate the cost of adding features to your home such as exterior ramps, interior chair lifts, walk-in tubs, wider halls and doorways, and other universal design elements. "With age, almost everyone experiences some loss of mobility and increasing difficulty bending, stretching, and weight bearing," writes Silvia Pericu in the book "Ambient Assisted Living." "The medical realities of aging—the physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments that come to everyone eventually, must not... be ignored. However, we must recognize that many older people are disabled by the design of the environment around them, rather than intrinsically disabled."

You might also find that one day, you need to hire cleaners, gardeners, and other professionals to handle tasks you have long done yourself, which will be an ongoing expense. As a potential offset, see if reduced property tax rates for seniors, especially those who are low income or disabled, are available where you live. In addition, if you qualify for it, programs such as the National Family Caregiver Support Program may be able to provide financial support for relatives who care for you, enabling you to afford to stay at home and reimburse family members who help you.

Types of Retirement Communities

If you move to a retirement community, then you'll need to conduct extensive research about your options. There are several types of retirement communities: active adult, independent living, assisted living, group homes, memory care, and nursing homes. Then there are continuing-care communities, also known as life plan communities, that offer a range of environments depending on your needs. In any retirement community, your home maintenance responsibilities will diminish, if not get eliminated entirely.

Costs, both up-front and ongoing, vary dramatically by community type, care level, brand and location, by whether you're renting or buying your living space, and by whether you'll have a roommate or live alone. Some retirement communities, particularly continuing care, have buy-in or entrance fees. The fee may be lower but require you to pay more for services later as you use them, or it may be higher and all-inclusive. In general, the nicer the facility and the more services it provides, the more it will cost. Costs also vary by location.

Medicare will not fund a retirement community, even long-term care in a nursing home for those who need one. (It does fund short-term care following a hospital stay.) If you qualify financially, then you may be able to qualify for Medicaid services, which will pay for nursing homes that accept Medicaid patients (not all do). There are also rules that say if you run out of money once you are already in a nursing home, and then qualify for Medicaid, then the home cannot force you to leave.

$6,000 vs $4,500

Examples of the monthly cost of assisted living in New York City vs. Kansas City, Mo.

Age Homogeneity

Walking around the block or visiting the park in a regular community offers opportunities to observe and socialize with people of all ages, from small children to retirees. When you live in a senior community, all of the residents will be at least 55 years old. That doesn't mean you'll never interact with younger people; they'll be working there and coming for visits. Some retirement communities even make a point of creating an intergenerational environment.

Some people like the prospect of living primarily around others in their age range. Other people don't. But it could be a mistake to say, "I'm absolutely not moving to a retirement community because I'm a young 75, and I don't want to be surrounded by people who are griping about their aches and pains and pill regimens." Instead, you might research retirement communities near you that cater to people with your level of vigor and enthusiasm.

Community and Isolation

Many seniors who live alone in their own homes feel isolated and lonely. In a senior community, staff can check on you daily, even if you're in great shape. Seniors who live alone in their own homes sometimes become undernourished, miss doses of needed medications, and develop worsening conditions that go untreated. No one is around to notice if you are eating well-balanced meals, taking your prescriptions, having trouble hearing, or exhibiting signs of depression.

Senior communities can offer the opportunity to have medication reminders, prepared meals, communal dining, and group activities and outings. Plus, you'll be in the company of others seeking companionship and assistance.

Health Care Risks and Benefits

COVID-19 has illustrated how quickly a virus can spread in a retirement community, but the risk is not new. Outbreaks of various infections are common in nursing homes, where residents "share sources of air, food, water, and healthcare... moreover, visitors, staff, and residents constantly come and go, bringing in pathogens from both the hospital and the community," states a 2003 review in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. While this study specifically references nursing homes, the same risks are present, sometimes to a lesser degree, in many retirement communities.

Living in your own home allows you to control your environment and limit your exposure to infectious health threats.

At the same time, retirement communities can provide faster access to medical care when you need it, as well as socialization that can benefit your mental health. Age- and ability-appropriate fitness programs and physical therapy may be just down the hall or down one floor. If you fall in the middle of the night, then help can be just the push of a call button away.

But you don't necessarily have to move out of your home to gain these benefits. Your community might have resources like a meal delivery program, a dial-a-ride service, and a senior center that offers social, intellectual, and fitness programs. Also, there are retirement services that provide older people with a range of lifelong care in their own homes, from nutrition and health care to transportation and emergency response.

Changing Your Mind After Moving

While moving to a retirement community may feel irreversible, it doesn't have to be—but you'll need to be strategic about building in an escape hatch. One option—though certainly not one everyone can afford—is to keep your current home while you give the retirement community a trial run.

Some communities let you stay over for visits before you sign up; it's not the same as moving in but could give you a sense of what the place is like. Or you may choose a community where you already have friends and can hear their pros and cons of your possible new residence. Another option is to stay away from communities with a buy-in fee and stick to ones that let you rent.

If your mental abilities are deteriorating, then you may not have the capacity to change your mind or communicate different wishes later—and you may no longer be able to live safely on your own. Another circumstance that could make the decision to leave home irreversible: You assign financial power of attorney to someone you trust, but that person violates their duties by making decisions that are neither the ones you want made nor in your best interests based on your issues with your new living situation.

The Bottom Line

Anytime you move, no matter where you are in life, you're taking a risk. You're trading familiarity for the unknown. If you're undecided, then you may want to seek advice in making this major decision from someone impartial, such as a therapist, counselor, or financial adviser who specializes in working with people in your circumstances.