How to Choose a Retirement Community
What you need to know before choosing where to retire
No more snow to shovel or lawns to mow, and freedom from the obligations of maintaining a private home are incentives aplenty for retirees to move to a retirement community. But before you make the emotional and financial investment, be sure to do your homework because there’s so much more to consider than swimming pools, dinner parties and walking with your dog on an idyllic nature trail.
The starting point is to get a clear understanding of the difference between a master-plan retirement community (like The Villages in Florida and Sun City, Arizona, or any others in warm-weather climates that attract flocks of senior snowbirds), an age-restricted neighborhood governed by a homeowners association and a continuing care retirement community (CCRC). While New Hampshire doesn’t have any master-plan retirement communities, the state map is dotted with 55-plus residential developments that sprout up like purple loosestrife. Both are entirely unlike a CCRC, which is essentially a life plan community.
“A lot of people who consider this don’t understand the difference between a CCRC and a retirement community. They think we are a real estate product. We are not. We’re insurance,” says Catherine Toomey, the vice president of marketing at RiverWoods Exeter, RiverWoods Durham and Birch Hill in Manchester.
For seniors of means, a CCRC may be the ideal option for aging in place. It’s designed for healthy people in search of security since they can stay in the same community as they advance through the inevitable aging process, while receiving a continuum of care through independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing care and/or memory care. Moreover, you can bring your pet with you. Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? But read the fine print before sticking a “for sale” sign in your front yard.
“The first thing is that people need and should have all the facts,” says Paul Charlton, the vice president of marketing for the established Taylor Community in Laconia and its new sister community in Wolfeboro. “How much does it cost? What is included? How many square feet is my residence? What are my options? You absolutely have to understand all the factual stuff before you can make the decision to move here or to somewhere else,” he says. “You need to educate yourself and know exactly what you’re doing, where you’re going and what all the terms are.”
For most people, says Charlton, the time between beginning to research options and actually making the move to a retirement community is measured in years, not months. “That just goes to show how much you really do have to dig in and understand things before you make that move,” he says. “You must take the time and make the effort to get your facts straight and to get a good feel for the place.”
Because the decision-making process can be overwhelming, Toomey decided to sum up important information in a book. She and the RiverWoods CFO also tour the country teaching seminars to financial advisors and estate planning attorneys so they may best advise their clients.
“The free booklet on all this explains the difference between CCRCs and the different contracts and knowing exactly what you are buying,” says Toomey. She emphasizes that it’s crucial to understand that there are three different contract types.
“Are you [your estate] going to get money back after you pass away or not? What kinds of service are offered? What is the cost of those services? You have to do your homework and fully understand the contract, understand if the community is nonprofit or for profit, understand what the increases of the fees can be,” says Toomey.
She also recommends that you visit the place you’re considering — and, ideally, more than once. Take a good look around, talk to residents without a marketing person present and even stay overnight if you can.
“It’s a big, big investment and your entire future is riding on this,” says Toomey.
In recent years, the CCRC concept has evolved to university-based retirement communities that allow residents primary access to advanced educational and recreational opportunities, plus excellent care at major teaching hospitals. They were created by top schools like Duke, Notre Dame and Stanford, and there are now about 70 of them across the country. Although residents don’t have to be alumni of the university, about 10% at each community are, and those residents thoroughly enjoy the connection with their alma mater. That’s the case at Kendal at Hanover, which is situated on a bucolic 65-acre campus about two miles from Dartmouth College.
“We have quite a few residents who are associated with the college, whether they are alumni or former faculty, and we also have residents who are closely related to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center as former physicians, professors or staff,” says Jeff Roosevelt, Kendal at Hanover marketing and public relations director.
“Certainly, the two Dartmouths are very well connected to Kendal,” says Roosevelt. “Many of our residents take advantage of the Osher at Dartmouth Lifelong Learning Program, and we’ve heard that some audit classes at Dartmouth,” he adds.
Kendal at Hanover, which has 150 individual homes, is at capacity with 400 residents, who are catered to by a well-trained staff of 300, and there is a long waiting list. Roosevelt explained that it is a Type A contract community, which means you pay an entry fee and maintain the monthly fees, with possible annual increases, for all the services provided. If you have long-term insurance, then that can be factored into a reduced entry fee depending on the strength of the individual policy.
Located closer to the Seacoast is the new RiverWoods Durham, which is not yet completed. While not affiliated with the University of New Hampshire, it does have a partnership with the school.
“We’ve done some really fun things to connect with UNH. It’s wonderful,” says Toomey. “We have a lot of alumni, professors and staff members, so they have a real connection to the university and can maintain it. They love that. Every one of the residents gets a UNH student ID, which allows them to get a Wildcat card. If they are of a certain age, and I believe it’s 75, they can audit a certain number of classes for free.”
No matter what type of CCRC you choose, nor how long the waiting list, proponents are convinced that all are preferable to aging in place at home, which can lead to isolation, depression, health issues and a diminished quality of life. But taking the plunge is still a major decision.
“It’s huge. It’s so big that we say this is really a choice for optimists. It’s for people who say, ‘I’m not done yet. I want to meet new friends. I want to learn new activities. I’m excited about the next chapter,’” says Toomey. “We have a group of ladies in their 80s who ski together. We’ve had people fall in love again and we’ve had marriages. None of these people would have ever met if they hadn’t moved to a community.”