December 13, 2018

How to Evaluate a Retirement Community


The majority of us want to age in place, that is, remain in our current home as long as possible. The comfort of familiar surroundings and pushing back against the inevitable need for care are important reasons. The reality is that at some point, living alone, or even with a spouse or partner to help, you are going to need more support than is possible at home. 

For some, making that move is a logical decision. Children or relatives do not have the caregiving burden or expense to deal with. The elimination of maintenance and other home-owing or renting facts of life disappear. Moving while still healthy enough to enjoy your new surroundings and lifestyle makes sense.

Modern retirement communities offer more opportunities for entertainment, learning, and staying active, if that is what you want. A full service CCRC, or Continuing Care Retirement Community, has a range of housing and care options, including the presence of a nursing facility if that stage of care becomes necessary. 


This care does not come cheaply. A "buy-in" up to $300,000 (or more) is often required. That gets you in the door and into an appropriate level of housing (independent or assisted living). It guarantees you living space and care for the rest of your life. On-going fees can add anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 a month. That pays for most of your meals, overall care, and all maintenance. Think of it as rent with benefits. 

Other options are less expensive but usually do not include a guaranteed place in a nursing center or a full range of services. Independent living is probably in an apartment rather than a separate casita-type facility.

So, what your fiances can handle, what your care needs are at the moment, and what level of activities and living style you desire are considerations. How to decide what is best? Here are some ways to evaluate full service retirement communities:


1.  CCRC's  or larger retirement communities that offer more limited care are usually privately owned and operated by a for-profit corporation. A community can run into serious financial problems and have to cut services, raise monthly fees, or even go out of business.  Obviously, with the amount of money you have invested in the buy-in and the monthly charges, you could suffer some severe consequences if that happens. 

It is wise to ask some basic financial health questions of a community you are considering. How long have they been in business? Are they growing or contracting? How long has management been in place (lots of turnover could equal potential problem)? What is the staff to resident ratio in the more specialized areas like the nursing center? Something in the range of 40% - 50% is good. Does it have publicly available financial information you can review? Ask to see the last 5 years of monthly fees. Are they increasing more than inflation can justify?

Click this link for a more in-depth look at how to analyze retirement community structures and expenses. Another excellent article: reviewing a community's financial health.


2. What are your first impressions of the facility?  Are the buildings well maintained? Are the interiors inviting and well-lit? Is any landscaping being well cared for? Are the dining, exercise, and public areas attractive? What do the independent and assisted living options look like? Could you see yourself living there? Do any residents you encounter appear happy and active? 

3. What transportation options are available for those who don't drive? Does the community have on-property shuttle or bus service? How about ways to go off-site to medical and religious facilities, shopping, and entertainment options? If you prefer to not travel much, are there enough activities and events on-site that match your interests? 

4. Do you have a pet or plan on getting one? What are the rules concerning ownership and control? If barking dogs bother you, do you hear too much of that while on property? 

5. Try the restaurants and lounges on campus. Would you be happy with the choices, quantity and quality of food and drink on a daily basis?

6. If part of the package, is the nursing center well-staffed, clean, and pleasant? Are residents left in wheelchairs in front of a TV all day, or is staff engaged with each one on a regular basis?  

7. If possible spend some time talking with a few of the residents. They may be your best source of what it is like to live there.



A move to a Continuing Care Retirement Community or larger facility aren't your only choices, of course. Cohousing, having a roommate to share expenses and care for each other, or living with family are all possible options. Smaller retirement communities without a full range of services usually don't require a large initial buy-in. Monthly fees are lower.

Whatever you are considering, take your time, do the research, and be sure the one you pick is best for you. Ask questions and feel comfortable with your decision. 

Since this is likely the last move of your life, make it one you that makes you happy.



16 comments:

  1. The only experience experience I have had with any of this is the CRCC we moved my mother into after my father died in 1993. There was no huge upfront buyin, rather a reasonable deposit and monthly rent if you will. They had various levels of care all the way up to an Alzheimer's wing, various meal plans, transportation, entertainment, and so on. She thrived there, never needing any additional care up until about the last two months of her life, eventually passing almost twenty years later at age 90.

    That experience notwithstanding I hope I never have to live in any CRCC, nursing home, hospital or what not. Most are not as pleasant as my mother's was, and even her's will likely change for the worse as they try to wring every penny of profit out of the residents.

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    1. Because most retirement communities are run by for-profit companies, there is always the risk of the types of problems you fear. Once a large sum of money has been invested, you have few options if things go south. So, due diligence is critical.

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  2. A dear friend of mine, divorced and no kids, moved into a casita at Friendship Village , in our East Valley, with a friend of hers.They paid a large buy in, I am not sure the amt. and have a monthly rent. The quality of life my friend experiences is awesome.. she has rides to all the downtown entertainment venues, a dining room, public areas to share time with others if desired, a pool with water aerobics, a golf cart pick up when she does not want to walk to the common areas for meal or exercise. They have a Pub where she meets her crowd for martinis a couple of times a week. Her retired dermatologist and retired dentist live there too!! She also still works part time in social work as do some of her neighbors (work,that is..) but not many. I meet her for lunch in the dining room once in a while, and am so impressed with this facility that I will be visiting for my own tour /infosoon. We're years away from "needing" to do something like this, but I keep files of info "just in case.." the time may come sooner than later.. I know the fees are prohibitive , but many of the folks there sold a house to do the buy in, in order to have the long term health care and security. I think it is important to think ahead and gather info and just have some peace of mind knowing when the time for a change may occur, we are somewhat prepared.

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    1. As you know, my parents both lived at the same CCRC for several years before their deaths. Since I visited once a week for lunch I was able to keep a close eye on the facilities and their care. THere were never any problems. They did sell a home to pay the admittance fee, which is high and not for everyone.

      Neither Betty and I are in any rush to make such a move, but looking at options now is the best plan.

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  3. Great summary of the topic. The other question to ask is, what happens if you live longer than expected and run out of money. Will they take Medicaid, or your SS, or make other arrangements? (My mother-in-law, at age 102, is facing the issue now and her (non-profit) facility is helping her out, being very flexible; but I don't know if they're all that way.)

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    1. Good question. Medicaid has very strict asset rules. Usually, to live in a typical CCRC the person wouldn't qualify. However, in the the case you mention my understanding is that Medicaid would cover some or all of the costs if the person has depleted all relevant assets. I don't think Social Security offers anything other than the monthly check.

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  4. I think it is important to keep in mind that the place can be sold to a different company. My mom's place went from Non profit to profit. Services (like being able to be transported to non medical places) have been cut. There is some discussion as to the pay that the people working there get (it was excellent---but I think the new people think they were paying too much). It is not something residents can control.
    Saying that, it has been a Godsend for my mother. The place functions well.
    On the part of Medicaid and out living assets.... They can garnish almost all of their SS and lower their care (placing them in shared rooms/ cut extras/ make family feel guilty), but they cannot throw them out (I think that is nation wide)! It is one of the reasons "well funded" places demand to see your assets before you move in.
    Personally, I am praying I will be well enough to live in a granny pod with hospice at the end.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification on Medicaid's place in the care equation.

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  5. Thanks for this, Bob; it is very helpful. I have been visiting retirement communities for the past couple of years, knowing that the burdens of maintaining my rural property alone and the flight of stairs up from the driveway to the main level of the house will become barriers to my enjoyment of this house as I age. My focus has been on evaluating the retirement communities for how well they fit my lifestyle and personality. (Would other residents be tolerant of my fairly high needs for solitude? Could I hang clothes out on the line to dry, or are there rules that would force me to use fossil fuels for this purpose? What are the gardening options? Is the community served by good public transportation? Is the community in an appealing setting where I could connect to the natural world?) I have known that before I make a decision and get on a waiting list, I should also evaluate the financial stability of the communities on my short list, but I haven't been sure how to do that. The two article links you included are particularly valuable for me.

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    1. Good, Jean. I wrote this for sort of a selfish reason: I had no concrete idea what to look for and what to ask about. At some point, Betty and I will need to get serious about our search. This post will be a good starting point. In the meantime, I'm glad it gave you some guidelines.,

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  6. Bob, this is a good post about what to look for. I too have no idea what I would look for as everyone in both my family and my wife's family has soldiered on in their own homes until almost the end. Not one has ever gone into care or assisted living and usually depended on friends and relatives keeping an eye on them as they aged into their late 80s and 90s. At 88 I think my mother should be considering such a move and even though she's wheelchair bound now she won't hear of it (I thank God my sister lives nearby and keeps mom safe).

    I am trying to be more open minded about a Continuing Care Retirement Community for us in say 10-15 years but I can already sense resistance from my wife. Perhaps, like my mother, my wife can't imagine not being independent.

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    1. Betty is less willing to move to one than I am, though she agrees with me that we don't want our daughters to have to become caregivers. As long as there are enough activities and good facilities, once the time comes I won't mind giving up a lot of the responsibility and work that home ownership (or even apartment rental) involves. And, not having to think about cooking or food shopping every week would be fine with me!

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  7. My sister and her husband moved to one this summer. They had lived in their home for over 50 years, and most of us in the family thought the move was a mistake. We all agree now we were wrong. My sister enjoys not having to cook every day. They have friends there. And when my brother in law needed extra medical help this fall, they were right there where help was at hand. So for them it was a good move, even though admittedly it was challenging and in some ways traumatic to go through the whole process for the last couple of years.

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    1. I am not looking forward to such a move, but I know it will be the best thing for Betty, me, and our kids. My actual "home" isn't all that important to me. As long as it is comfortable, has some of our personality sprinkled throughout, and has enough space for us to be separately together, I will be happy.

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  8. I'm going with my father to make an offer on a level C apartment in a community that we feel very comfortable with. I can't find any real estate sales info for this community. Do you always pay list price? How can I find out a fair price to pay for an apartment in this community?

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    1. The way I have always figured out what to pay is to use a real estate agent. Their services don't cost the buyer anything and they have the ability to look at prices of comparable units that have sold recently. Those numbers give you an idea of what to offer.

      If you'd prefer not to deal with an agent at this stage, Zillow does a decent job of giving you a look at prices in the area, what is on the market, and what has sold.

      The price to offer also depends on the housing market in your area. In some places housing is selling quickly for list price or over. In other markets, bargains can be found. That is another thing a good agent (or Zillow) can tell you.

      Finally, are you paying cash or financing? An offer that has complicated financing or very little down can turn a seller off.

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