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Searching for a Senior Community: Envelopes in the top drawer

Reprinted from the South Shore Senior News, February 2017 edition

f2d6740da60ff8f7a1292dd305a1a4eb-jpg_srz_445_297_85_22_0-50_1-20_0-00_jpg_srzBy Lisa Burke

“Winter is here again and we’re talking about selling our home and moving to a senior community … we’re just not sure we’re ready to start this process!”

Does this sound familiar? Now that the new year has started, has “investigate senior communities” moved to the top of your list? Is it time to consider a move that will address issues of safety, care and socialization?

Many high school seniors heard from colleges in December. Some are now envisioning starting a new chapter in their lives on a college campus they may have visited months ago or possibly initially explored years ago. Many of us remember visiting colleges – hearing about a school, touring the campus, asking questions and comparing options. Then doing follow-up visits to top choices and assessing the environment, wondering if this was a place that offered what we were looking for and with people whose interests were similar to ours.

I now work with the other seniors – not those in High School looking at colleges, but rather older adults considering independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing or continuing care retirement communities. As with colleges, each senior community is different and each has its own personality – one place may be a great fit for one person but not at all appropriate for someone else.

The college selection process begins long before a student moves to campus or signs up for classes. In this same spirit, my recommendation is to approach decisions regarding senior communities with similar thoughtful consideration in advance of when you need to make a choice, allowing for opportunities to visit, compare and discuss. Even if someone is not ready to move, identifying options in advance results in a less stressful decision-making process, not one occurring in the middle of a crisis, when key players may be overwhelmed, as well as physically and emotionally exhausted.

Often people opt to wait and see what happens before taking steps to understand different types of senior communities, services and amenities provided, and associated costs. Many plan for retirement, plan for the possibility of long term care, but are reluctant to identify specific senior communities they might be interested in. Usually there is a precipitating event that prompts individuals and families to explore their choices. Ideally, when the time comes to make a move, there will be several “envelopes in the top drawer” – plans that have been carefully considered before they’re needed. If someone is unable to care for themselves, where would they want to live? For couples, if one spouse is incapacitated or dies, will the surviving spouse be okay living on their own and if not, where will they move to?

Case Study: Daniel and Dora are in their 80s and have lived in their Florida condominium since they moved from the Boston area 15 years ago. They have five children who live throughout the country, mostly in the northeast. They have a full life – friends, golf, dinners out and summer visits to family. Daniel has always handled the couple’s finances – paying bills, managing their investments – and Dora does the shopping and cooking. In the last year, however, Daniel has fallen a few times and Dora is showing signs of memory issues.

At some level, everyone in the family recognizes that they are one medical crisis away from needing to make some significant life changes. If Dora were to decline cognitively, Daniel at some point may not be able to care for her, and he doesn’t cook, so their meals would likely not be well balanced or healthy. If Daniel were unable to manage their finances and drive and turn off the stove when Dora leaves it on, their situation will only get more worrisome. And how safe will either of them be if the other requires an extended stay in the hospital or at a rehabilitation facility?

Impossible to predict how Daniel and Dora’s story will unfold. The best step for them is to do some planning now, while they’re both relatively healthy and can consider their residential options together. For this family, there will be multiple envelopes in a top drawer – plans for each of multiple scenarios. Some envelopes will never be opened, but it’s possible that at least one envelope will be opened during a time of crisis, by family members grateful for this gift and the planning efforts made before they were needed.

Start the process sooner rather than later – when there’s time and the opportunity to visit communities, talk with residents, try the food and ask questions. Many people have preconceived notions of senior communities and most are quite surprised at the range of options available and the number of activities designed to appeal to many different interests. Independent Living communities and Assisted Living communities provide privacy and autonomy to residents, along with meals, opportunities for socialization, activities, transportation and a simplified way of life.

Ask the important questions to get the conversation started: Do you want to rent or own? How much assistance is needed now and how much might be needed in the future? What town would you like to live in or near? In what type of surrounding area are you most comfortable – close to a city or more suburban? How large of an apartment or house would you like? Which activities look interesting to you? Do you want a large community or a small community? In one building or spread out over a campus? Non-profit or for-profit? Is religious diversity important to you? What can you afford to spend? What are deal breakers?

An organized and well planned search – whether for the right college or the right senior community – increases the likelihood of finding the best fit. With both types of decisions, that goal requires and deserves time, effort and thoughtful consideration.

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Lisa Burke

About the Author

Lisa Burke is a Senior Residential Advisor and Principal of Step with Care, providing guidance and planning to seniors and their families who are considering independent living communities, assisted living communities or skilled nursing facilities in Massachusetts. Email lisa.burke@stepwithcare.com or call 774-215-0956 for your complimentary consultation.

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