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Living in an Independent Senior Living Community During Retirement

Once upon a time, retirement homes were synonymous with nursing homes – places people went when they were no longer able to care for themselves. Too often, it meant wasting away at the end of one’s life, waiting for the inevitable.

Today, there is a much broader definition and a continuum of possibilities, which includes not only nursing home care and assisted living, but also independent living retirement communities. Many of them include rich social opportunities, a variety of activities, and even increased freedom, all of which make retirement in a community feel like the beginning of a new adventure rather than an end.

In fact, today’s independent living retirement communities help you feel as though you have a place and a purpose. They renew your interest in life and fill your days with a variety of adventures and opportunities. And they do it all while allowing you to maintain a sense of community and carefree living – exactly what you might be looking for in your retirement years.

What Is an Independent Living Retirement Community?

An independent living community is a type of retirement community. The term “retirement community” is a broad term that generally covers four categories of living experiences and housing options for seniors. In addition to independent living, there are also assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and continuing care retirement communities, which provide all levels of care within one campus.

Like other types of retirement communities, independent living communities provide a variety of activities and social opportunities. But unlike communities that offer higher levels of care, independent living is designed for active seniors who are generally healthy and don’t need any special medical care or assistance with daily activities.

One of the major differences between independent retirement communities and assisted living and nursing home facilities is you generally want to move to one. The decision to move to assisted living or a nursing home, on the other hand, is need-based.

Why Retirees Choose Independent Living Communities

According to 2017 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the population of Americans aged 65 and older increased by 33% over the preceding 10 years and is projected to double by 2060. More, the average life expectancy for both males and females once they reach the age of 65 has the majority living well into their 80s.

This means there’s a larger percentage of the population than ever living into their golden years. Yet of those, only a relatively small percentage need extra help. According to the DHHS, only 3% of adults aged 65 to 74, 9% of adults aged 75 to 84, and 22% of adults aged 85 and older need outside assistance. However, the challenges involved in home ownership and a lack of community support drive many older Americans to seek out less demanding living arrangements, despite a report on senior housing from Harvard University noting that as many as 73% of older Americans prefer to remain in their own homes as long as possible.

Inaccessible Homes

According to the Harvard report, by the time they reach 85, more than two-thirds of individuals have some type of disability. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll need extra help. But it does mean some people need housing that’s more accessible.

Common accessibility upgrades include:

  • Single-floor living
  • No-step entries
  • Extra-wide doorways and hallways
  • Grab bars (such as  for the bathtub)
  • Accessible switches, outlets, and controls

For some, making these improvements is prohibitively expensive or structurally impossible. However, homes in retirement communities – independent or otherwise – are designed with those physical needs in mind.

In fact, this is one of the primary reasons my father chose to move to an independent living community. Although he’s capable of managing his own personal care, he’s a leg-amputee and needs the accessibility provided by retirement community housing.

Lack of Community Support Systems

The Harvard report notes an additional challenge to keeping your home into your golden years is a lack of social support. Your social circles often shift or disappear as you age, as does your interaction with your greater community.

According to the report, most older Americans live in rural or suburban areas, which don’t provide easy access to public transportation or walk-accessible amenities like dining and shopping. Yet even seniors who live in cities suffer from social isolation if they’re unable to leave their apartment due to physical inability or safety concerns.

On the other hand, an independent living community provides access to transportation and regular social interaction. And many communities are built near amenities accessible by walking.

Advantages of Independent Retirement Communities

For active, sociable seniors who want to live their retirement years without the hassles of maintaining their own home, there are a lot of advantages to living in a retirement community.

1. Choice of Living Arrangements

Independent retirement communities are typically comprised of private apartments ranging in size from studios to two-bedrooms. Generally, they include everything you’d find in an apartment, including a kitchen and one or more bathrooms. And just as with any standard apartment, they range from basic to higher-end, with things like luxury appliances, hardwood floors, and walk-in closets.

The only real difference between a “regular” apartment and one designed for senior living is accessibility. They often have adaptations like walk-in showers with seating, grab bars in the bathrooms, higher toilets, or even lowered counter height, which makes both counters and cabinets more accessible to those who use a wheelchair.

Although apartments are most common, it’s possible to find retirement communities that offer the entire range of housing options – from condos and townhomes to single-level cottages and even single-family homes. There are also high-end luxury communities and more moderate communities. There are even retirement communities comprised of mobile homes and RVs. You can buy, you can rent, or you can live together as part of a co-op. You have the option to live your retirement years in any way you imagine.

2. Social Opportunities

Living outside a retirement community, even in the home you’ve always lived in, otherwise known as aging in place, is socially isolating for many people. Some don’t feel connected to their neighbors, and if they have adult children, that doesn’t mean they live locally or visit often.

But when you live in a retirement community, there’s an entire group of people your own age. You can all share meals, participate in activities, and even enjoy outings together.

This sense of being part of a larger community and finding like-minded others to connect with is what draws people to independent living communities. In fact, the social opportunities offered by retirement communities are typically cited as the No. 1 benefit.

If community is important to you, keep that in mind when you’re choosing the type of housing you want to live in. While a cottage may seem like an easier transition if you’re relocating from a single-family home, residents who live in apartment-style communities report greater social interaction and a more village-like atmosphere.

3. Activities

One of the biggest worries among family members of retiring seniors is they won’t have enough to keep them busy. Not staying active quickly leads to decline, both physically and mentally. According to the National Institute on Aging, studies show socially engaged and active seniors live longer and remain in better health.

Fortunately, nearly every independent living community has organized social activities. These include things such as social get-togethers like dances and holiday celebrations, craft activities like knitting circles, movie nights at in-house movie theaters, fitness classes, volunteer opportunities, and field trips. My father and stepmom’s retirement community recently hosted an outing to a local winery. They’ve also been to The Wilds, a safari experience associated with the Columbus Zoo.

What’s available at the community you choose will depend on the location and the interests of you and your fellow residents.

4. Age Restriction

No matter the type of independent living community, what ties them together is the age of the residents. The communities are typically age-restricted to those who are 55-plus and generally healthy who want to remain as independent as possible.

The age restriction can be a plus for seniors who enjoy the kind of quiet that living in a community where children are present can’t provide. In fact, some communities go so far as to prohibit children from staying overnight out of respect for residents’ desire for a quiet neighborhood.

Those who have close relationships with grandchildren or other kids in their lives and are accustomed to longer-term visits from those kids should steer clear of communities with such rules.

5. Transportation

Just because you’re otherwise healthy doesn’t mean you don’t have difficulty driving. Whether that’s because of impaired eyesight or another physical challenge or you just prefer to leave the driving to others, many independent retirement communities offer transportation services.  Sometimes, that means a car service to take you to doctors’ appointments or the grocery store. Sometimes, it’s a bus for group outings.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up driving. Because retirement communities are all about helping you maintain as much independence as possible, you can hang onto your car as long as you’re able and willing.

6. Meals

Another service typically offered by retirement communities is some type of in-house dining. Most commonly, this means a centrally located dining room that serves regular meals. There’s often a set of entrees offered and a menu with easily prepared items like sandwiches and salads. Some of the more upscale communities even have several on-site restaurants to choose from.

Although the menu is limited, many people like knowing they don’t have to cook or go grocery shopping. Most kitchens remain open for a wide range of hours, so it’s easy to stop by the dining room anytime you want something to eat. You can also take something back to your room or out with you on an excursion.

As with transportation, just because meals are offered doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of them. Independent living housing, no matter the type, typically includes a kitchen or kitchenette for those who enjoy cooking or want a bite after dining hours – or for those like my stepmother, who prefer the solitude of their apartment for certain meals.

7. Maintenance-Free Living

Another big plus for those who choose to move into retirement communities is the freedom from home maintenance. Although communities can differ in what they offer, most have a maintenance staff that’s available to fix anything that’s broken or even help change a lightbulb. Better yet, regular housekeeping services are often included in your monthly fees or rent.

Additionally, if you choose a town house or a single-family home, yard maintenance like shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, or trimming trees is typically taken care of for you, either by the complex manager or the homeowner’s association. Your HOA fee also often includes home maintenance such as fixing falling siding or broken gutters.

Regardless of the type of housing you choose, while you’re living independently in a retirement community, you’ll be freed from the usual burdens of maintaining a home and property.

8. Security

Although the type of security offered depends on the type of housing, there is usually at least some level of security provided, whether that’s a gated community or a staff on call 24/7.

Generally, apartment communities provide the highest level of security. There will always be a staff present around the clock to help you in an emergency. Although most communities don’t have in-house doctors on staff, many provide emergency buttons you wear at all times to alert staff if you fall or experience another critical situation.

Some even ask for check-ins. In the community where my dad and stepmom live, residents must push a check-in button by 11am every morning so the staff knows they’re OK. If you don’t push the check-in button, someone will come to check on you.

The friends you make in the community also provide a layer of security. My father says your friends will check in on you if you’re unexpectedly absent from activities you usually do for too long.

In addition to providing a sense of medical security, many people living in an apartment community feel safer than they did living in an individual home. You’re less likely to encounter burglars or intruders when there’s someone at the front desk at all times. Guests are usually asked to sign in so the staff knows if someone is in the community when they shouldn’t be.

9. A Variety of Amenities

Just as communities come in a variety of housing types and luxury levels, so too do they offer a variety of amenities. These can range from the location – such as facilities being within convenient distance of shopping centers, restaurants, and even hospitals – to on-site conveniences like outdoor spaces, walking trails, swimming pools, fitness clubs, game/billiard rooms, tennis courts, and even golf courses. These types of amenities will help you stay active in your retirement years.

Many communities also offer amenities like salons, concierge services, and laundry service.

Although there are communities where you pay for at least some amenities a la cart, I often jokingly refer to my dad and stepmom’s community as an “all-inclusive resort.” Their monthly rent includes all utilities, all their meals, regular housekeeping, and a variety of activities. Many communities even provide cable and Internet, although the Internet will be unsecured, as it’s for public use – similar to what you’d find in a hotel. The more upscale the community, the more amenities you’ll find – and the more you’ll pay.

Disadvantages of Independent Retirement Communities

While retirement communities can offer a lot to keep your retirement years fun and active, they’re not without their drawbacks.

1. Cost

Probably the biggest drawback to living in an independent retirement community is the cost. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $1,500 to $3,500 per month. The type of housing, geographic region, and amenities offered determine where in that range the cost will fall.

For example, my father and stepmother rent a “deluxe” two-bedroom apartment in Columbus, Ohio for upward of $5,000 per month. But in more upscale retirement communities or other geographic locations, it’s not unusual to see rents as high as $10,000 per month. And if you’re renting, you can expect rent to go up every year, just as it does in any rental community.

Although rate statistics on independent living communities are rare, the national average increase for assisted living and nursing homes is 3%, and the average increase for all rental communities, not just senior housing is 4%. So factor that in when you’re considering whether your retirement funds can stretch far enough to cover the costs.

But there are also other costs to consider. Some communities have high buy-in fees of as much as $200,000 or more. Typically, in these communities, you’re actually buying your home, but you’ll often still pay a monthly fee for your amenities. Other communities have entrance fees of as little as $750 or as much as one month’s rent – much like giving a security deposit on a traditional apartment. And some communities have no entry fees at all.

You should also pay attention to the amenities. In some communities, all their amenities are part of the monthly payment. In others, you have to pay for them separately.

While new retirement communities are constantly springing up around the U.S., they are largely marketed to those who are well off financially. For retirees who aren’t wealthy, the costs put a significant strain on their finances. It could present a real problem for married couples if one spouse outlives the other.

Lower-income retirement communities are rare with the exception of government-subsidized housing provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, this type of housing is not widely available and neglects many of those with few financial resources. And while insurance and Medicaid help cover the costs of assisted living and nursing home care, they can’t be used to help pay for a home in an independent living retirement community. In fact, the Harvard report cites this as being a significant challenge that lies ahead for the growing senior population.

2. Adjustment to a New Lifestyle

One potential drawback of moving to a retirement community is the need to adjust to a new lifestyle. If you’re moving from an individual home into an apartment community, living in such close proximity to others is a big change, even if you’re glad to let go of all the maintenance and upkeep required by a house.

For some, it can feel intrusive to live in a community where others seem to be in your business all the time. And if you’re used to setting your own rules, it might not be appealing to transition to following the community’s rules.

3. Downsizing

Another big adjustment is the need to downsize. If you’re moving from a house into an apartment, you’ll have to let go of a lot of your stuff because your space will be smaller.

For some, letting go of their excess stuff is as big a relief as no longer having to maintain a home. For others, letting go brings on a grieving process. Our stuff generally carries with it a lot of memories, and many of us are sentimentally attached to our things.

4. The Potential Loss of Social Circles

If you live in a large metro area, you probably won’t have to look far to find exactly the type of community you want to live in. However, if you live in a rural area, you won’t have much to choose from, if anything at all. That means moving to an area with more options.

Some people also want to move closer to family. Moving to be near your family is ultimately a positive decision. But it can still come with loss. You have to get used to a new and unfamiliar area. And that means potentially breaking ties with your old social circles. And while you will certainly make friends in your new community, for many, this can feel like a significant loss.

5. A Lack of Age Diversity

Living around people their own age is a bonus for some. But it’s not for everyone. If you enjoy interacting with people of all ages, you won’t find that in a retirement community.

Some people also find it depressing to watch as friends become frailer.

And if your neighbors aren’t physically active, you won’t be as motivated to be either. Though being near family helps. I bring my 4-year-old to visit my dad regularly to give him an opportunity for activities he wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

6. Dissatisfaction With the Food

Some retirement communities provide a variety of dining experiences. But what’s most common is a central restaurant-style dining hall with menus and waitstaff. Expect the quality of the food to be more institutional than restaurant-quality.

Additionally, the selection will be limited. And if you’re on a special diet, it may be difficult to accommodate.

Plus, not all communities provide all meals as part of your monthly fee. You have to pay if you want more meals than come with your package.

The service also isn’t always great. The waitstaff isn’t trained like it is in a restaurant. And they don’t work for tips, so slow or spotty service is common. And though kitchens may stay open for extended hours, meals can be limited to specific hours.

Is an Independent Retirement Community Right for You?

When weighing whether to move into a retirement community, there’s more to consider than just the community itself. There are other questions you should also ask yourself.

Am I Ready?

You no longer want to mow the lawn, lug baskets of laundry up and down stairs, or fix that leaky faucet. But your kids took their first steps in the living room, and you now enjoy watching your grandkids toss a ball around the backyard.

Letting go of the past isn’t easy. Moving to a retirement community means letting go of your home, your lifestyle, and potentially even your friends and social circles. Are you ready for that?

For some, moving to a retirement community feels like a weight off their shoulders. But it’s also an adjustment, even if you do feel ready to move on. It’s important you’re prepared for that.

And for those who still feel healthy and active, it might not feel right to move. It feels more like retiring than a grand new adventure.

For others, the amenities a retirement community offers give them a feeling of greater freedom and independence. They long to feel like part of a community, where they’re surrounded by peers and able to explore new interests and activities.

For a moment, take cost out of the equation. How do you see yourself spending your golden years? What do you think life in a retirement community means for you?

Is My Family Ready?

It’s ultimately your decision whether or not to move into a retirement community. But to avoid hurt feelings, discuss the move with your adult children. It will be an adjustment for them too. It is helpful for the whole family to know what to expect.

This is especially true if it will mean selling the family home. Your kids have their own memories there – both of their own childhoods and their kids’.

I had mixed feelings when my dad sold our family home. My son took his first steps there. It’s where he’d splashed around in baby pools in the summer and jumped in leaf piles in the fall. But it was also the home where my mother had died. It was time for him to start a new chapter of his life.

Regardless, it was the end of an era, and this feeling is common. It is sometimes difficult for adult children to accept their parents need some extra help, even if it’s just with routine home maintenance.

Talking about your plans for the future is especially important if your children will play a role in your end-of-life planning. This includes discussions about the kind of care you might need as you age and what your desires are: whether you prefer to age in place or move somewhere you can receive increasing levels of care.

Have I Crunched the Numbers?

Cost is a big factor in moving to a retirement community. But it may not be as expensive as you think. In some cases, especially if you’re still paying a mortgage, it will even save some money.

Compare the affordability of the retirement communities you’re researching against what it actually costs to continue living in your current home.

The Costs of Home Ownership

If you own your own home – even if your mortgage is paid off – there are many other hidden costs of home ownership to factor into your decision. These include property taxes, home insurance, utilities, and home repairs.

For example, you’ll need to replace your hot water heater, your appliances, your roof, your carpet, your windows, and your faucets and fixtures from time to time. There’s painting to update, HVAC repair, sewer lines to clear, and sometimes water where it shouldn’t be. A single water leak could cost $5,000 just to fix the leak and another $5,000 to fix what was damaged.

Thus, home repairs alone can be monumental. According to the Washington Post, the amount you spend annually on home maintenance varies by your home’s age, size, and condition as well as where you live. But the average across all homes and locations is $16,000 per year. That alone is almost the cost of annual rent on a small apartment at a modest retirement community.

The Costs of Aging in Place

If you decide to age in place, you have to factor into your budget services you want or need, like housekeeping you hire through, landscaping, laundry, and meal preparation. Having a home aid come in to assist with tasks like laundry and cooking costs on average $20 per hour. And there’s typically a requirement they must be there for a minimum of three hours. According to AARP, the median cost of a home aid is $125 per day, assuming 44 hours of care per week.

You’ll also want to consider any future modifications you need to make your home accessible as you age. For example, my parents’ washer and dryer were located in the basement. But it would have cost them thousands of dollars to have the hookups placed on the first or second floor.

And what if you want to wire your home with smart technology to monitor you or your medications and alert someone when there’s a problem? Aside from the thousands of dollars required for installation, there are also monthly monitoring fees.

All this can add up to the reality that living at home is far from free. But that doesn’t mean you’ll save money by moving to a retirement community.

The Costs of a Retirement Community

You’ll probably pay at least a little more to live in a retirement community. However, the amenities make the price worth it for some.

It’s likely you won’t have to worry about buying groceries, paying utilities, or ever buying another home appliance or even a lightbulb. They’re probably factored into your monthly rent. Also, disability-accessible accommodations, emergency alert monitoring, cleaning services, maintenance services, and landscaping are usually included.

And when comparing costs, factor in that rent in a retirement community will increase every year, typically by 3% to 4%. Make sure the combination of your available funds – whether from the sale of your home, your pension, Social Security, or retirement savings – can cover your retirement community and other financial needs in retirement.

How to Choose a Retirement Community

It’s important to find a retirement community that fits your needs. That could mean having certain activities – such as local shopping, dining, and recreation – within walking distance. It could mean you want to live somewhere with a swimming pool and fitness center. It could mean choosing a cottage over an apartment. It could even mean choosing a community with upgrades like assisted living and nursing home care in case you need it in the future.

Before you start considering any community seriously, figure out your must-haves, want-to-haves, and deal breakers. Remember, your options will be limited – or not – based on the location you’re considering and what you can afford.

Services like A Place for Mom are useful. But a simple Internet search for communities available in your desired area works too. Schedule a visit to any potential picks. Many communities have open houses, where you’ll go on a tour and participate in special events.

Questions to Ask

Finding the right mix of desirable amenities at a price you can afford is only the first step. Factors below the surface – the ones they don’t mention in the marketing brochures – are just as important. For example, because you’ll be living close to others, make sure you like the atmosphere and overall personalities of the current residents.

As you tour the communities, talk to the residents, not just to see if you like them, but to get the scoop on other important details.

  • Are they happy with where they live?
  • What do they like about the community?
  • What do they dislike about the community?
  • Were there any surprises – anything they weren’t prepared for before they moved in?
  • Is the staff responsive?
  • How old are the residents generally? Because a higher-than-ever percentage of Americans are able to live independently into their 80s, “senior” could mean anywhere from 55 to 95 or older, making it likely multiple generations – rather than exclusively peers – are living in the same retirement community.
  • What are residents’ general interests? Having shared interests will help you feel more like a part of a community.

Also, make sure to ask specific questions of the leasing staff.

  • What costs are included/not included in the monthly rent? Some costs to ask about include: housekeeping, laundry service, meals (including how many), cable TV, Internet, private phone, utilities, transportation, parking, activities, salon services, and a wellness program.
  • Are there any move-in costs, such as a waiting list deposit or security deposit?
  • Can children stay as guests? Some communities have strict “no children” policies to control noise. But if you’d like the option to host your grandchildren for a night or two, this could be a deal breaker.
  • Are visiting children able to use any of the amenities, like the swimming pool or the dining hall?
  • Are pets allowed? If you have a pet, this could also be a deal-breaker question. Most retirement communities allow cats, and some allow small dogs.
  • What are some examples of activities and outings provided for residents? Are they well-attended?
  • What transportation is available? Although transportation might not be a concern right now, it could become one down the line.
  • What security and emergency measures are there?

Before committing to a community, see if you can spend a night or two there. That will give you a real sense of what it’s like to live there, including whether you like the atmosphere and what the food and other amenities will be like.

Final Word

Moving to a retirement community is a big decision. It represents a whole new stage of life. And your choices will affect your and your loved ones’ finances, quality of life, and even long-term health and longevity.

Whatever you decide, know there are more options than ever for how to spend your retirement years, whether that means continuing to live in your current home or moving to a retirement community. Regardless, it’s possible to have the life you want and also get the care you need when the time comes.

Are you considering moving to a retirement community? What are you most looking forward to?

Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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