July 18, 2017 by Jean
Several months ago, I began to think seriously about what I will do when the hassles and physical work involved in maintaining my rural house become more than I can manage. (See The Plan.) After my TIAA financial advisor expressed the opinion that my retirement savings were enough to support living in a fancy retirement community, I decided to visit some of those communities; and two friends, both also single homeowners without children, decided to join me for those visits.
Last week, the three of us toured two different retirement communities, each about an hour away from where we now live. We spent about three hours at each community, meeting with a marketing staff member, touring facilities (including a variety of living units), and ending with a complementary lunch. The two communities have quite different business models. The first was a nonprofit “lifecare” community, where a large buy-in deposit and hefty monthly fees buy you a guarantee of care for the rest of your life. The second was a for-profit business with a similar buy-in deposit, but much lower monthly fees, and no guarantee of care when you can no longer live independently.
I wasn’t familiar with the “lifecare” model, so quite a bit of our time at the first community was spent with the marketing manager, learning the basics. When you enter this community as an “independent living” resident, you are guaranteed care for life, even when you can no longer live independently and need to move into one of the community’s assisted living apartments or even into their skilled nursing home. Long-term care is then provided at the same monthly rate charged for the type of independent living unit you were previously living in (which is considerably less than the market rate for assisted living or nursing home care). In order to make this model work, the non-profit has strict financial and physical health qualifications for becoming a resident. Although my financial advisor had specifically recommended this retirement community as one I could afford, it became clear to me that this would be true only if I moved to a smallish apartment; I could not meet the financial qualifications for the kind of semi-detached “cottage” that I am interested in. One of my friends was also disappointed to learn that she would not be allowed to share an independent living unit with her disabled brother because he could not meet the medical qualifications to live there independently on his own.
Although this retirement community was located on a gorgeous stretch of Maine coast with expansive ocean views, it left me with a feeling of being hemmed in and restricted. As the resident who hosted us for lunch explained, once you decide to move there, you have to “bite the bullet” and realize that you are not going to move again. She hastened to add that she does not regret moving to the community, that she loves it and has made many friends through the activities she engages in. Nevertheless, I was aware that, once you can no longer drive, your life will be pretty much restricted to what is available on the retirement community campus and the off-campus activities for which they provide transportation. I also realized, as we talked, that life in the independent living units is restricted by condo-type rules, like not being allowed to hang clothes out on a clothesline to dry.
The second retirement community, which we visited the following day, seemed more relaxed. Because this community is not promising to care for you until you die, they don’t need to worry about how long your assets will last or about how long you’ll be able to live independently. Being able to come up with the big deposit for entering the community (similar to the deposits at the lifecare community) and being able to pay the monthly fee are the only financial qualifications. And because residents are not paying in advance for long-term care that they might need in the future, the monthly fees are much lower. If the time comes when you are no longer able to live independently, you get 100% of your initial deposit back (when your independent living unit is re-rented) and you can use that money to finance long-term care. Medical qualifications are similarly relaxed; all you need is a doctor’s note saying that you are able to live independently at the time you move in.
This sense of relaxation about rules seemed to extend to other aspects of living in this community. When I asked about clotheslines, the marketing staffer who showed us around seemed startled; of course, I could have a clothesline in the backyard of my cottage. When my friend asked about having her disabled brother live with her, she was similarly reassured and we were told about a case in which age rules were bent a bit so that an elderly couple could have their disabled son live with them. Some of the difference between these two retirement communities is a reflection of their different business models. But I think the more laid-back attitude at the second community also reflects the fact that it is older and more established and more secure that it can survive.
The older community is also larger, and with a greater ratio of semi-detached “cottages” to apartments than the lifecare community. The campus is made up of neighborhoods built at different times that branch off from a main road through the complex. At each intersection is a bus stop for the shuttle bus that connects the different parts of the campus. The community is near, but not directly on, the coast, with some ocean views. Mostly, it is nestled in the woods. In the neighborhood of older 1200 square-foot semi-detached cottages that most interested me, each cottage backs up to woodlands that provide both shade and privacy. Despite the country feel that the woodlands provide, however, the campus is just a short bus ride from Maine’s largest city, with city buses stopping regularly at the entrance to the retirement community campus.
I found my retirement community visits very enlightening. They helped me develop a better understanding of my own preferences, and I now have a better sense of what questions to ask when I visit other retirement communities. I learned that the lifecare community is probably not a viable option for me. And I left the second community easily able to imagine myself living there.