Why you should consider a senior living community while you’re still fit


Live your best life!

By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today

Evelyn Baker and her husband, Gareth, decided that they’d worked long enough. At age 62, Gareth Baker retired from his job as a Presbyterian pastor and the two of them set off on an adventurous retirement, camping around the country and living in their RV full time. However, after four years they were ready to settle down again. The question was, where?

They had some friends who had moved to a retirement community in Ohio, so they started looking there. At age 67, the Bakers signed a lifetime lease on an independent home in Bristol Village, a continuing care community about an hour south of Columbus. Now in their 80s, they say it was the best choice they could have made. They have a place of their own with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that additional care is available when they need it. They have access to art workshops, fitness facilities and programs for seniors. But most importantly, they have a community of people they’ve known and loved for about 20 years. 

“We have made some good friends. I have many people that I can call if I need a hand with something,” Evelyn Baker said. “And, of course, there are a lot of employees that we can call for the more serious things. We think it’s the perfect place to be living out the last third of our lives.”

Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all senior living with bingo as the highlight of the day. Today’s seniors want housing and care arrangements that allow them to live their best life whatever their age.

“Older adults don’t want to live in a place where people treat them like they are in preschool,” said Tom Wyllie, director of wellness at Presbyterian Villages of Michigan. “Most older adults want to live somewhere they and their families can both be engaged and stimulated.”

Different housing needs

As we age, our needs for housing change. Choosing to live in a senior community can give life zest and meaning. The communities can bring together people who live with limited mobility in ways that may not be possible living at home without a driver’s license. Art centers, kayaking clubs, woodshops and college classes are not unheard of on senior living campuses.

“Too many people think that senior living means eating bad food and being confined to a small room,” said the Rev. Cynthia Ray, executive director of the Presbyterian Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.

But the trend in senior living is to keep people independent and active for as long as possible. Sometimes this means being independent in a house or apartment. Other times it means living with some assistance.

 “A good community will offer activities that are more than time-fillers. The activities should include the five dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, social, spiritual and vocational,” Ray said.

Finding the right home

Because senior living is a fast-growing business in a lot of states, there’s competition to have good facilities and individualized programming choices. The latest models for community living seek to empower the resident and re-create the kind of community and independence that many folks experience earlier in life. Finding the right fit for senior living can give the last third of life purpose and meaning.

Here are some suggestions for finding the best place:

You’re not too young. Think you aren’t old enough to consider senior living? Think again, says Audra Frye, director of sales and marketing at Presbyterian Villages of Michigan. Most people perceive themselves to be 10 years younger than they are.

“I once had a 95-year-old woman say she was not quite ready for senior living!” Frye said.

Researching senior living communities before needing nursing care provides a nonthreatening way for families to begin talking about the changes that aging brings and allows everyone to be on the same page about which criteria to use when evaluating different communities. Plus, it’s never too early to be put on the waitlist for a community you like.

“We have people who get on our waitlist when they are in their 60s,” said Katherine Peters, regional director for sales at Westminster Communities of Florida. “Along with great activities for independent seniors, they also have the peace of mind that support will be in place when they need it.”

Evelyn Baker said the biggest mistake she sees people make is waiting too long to move in.

“We can come and go and not have to worry about the house or yard. Plus, we have met a lot of people who have done such interesting things in their lives. We learn from each other,” Baker said.

Don’t wait for the crisis. Too often the move to senior living happens when a crisis occurs, and choices are limited. Unfortunately, a crisis preceding a change in housing is quite common for older adults. A fall or surgery can mean the medical professionals and social workers say home is no longer an option. When this happens, decisions need to be made quickly and sometimes the person who will be living in a new community can’t even tour it before moving in.

“The worst time to make an important decision about where to live is in the midst of a crisis,” Ray said. “A fall or other incident means the options have narrowed and the person being moved feels like they have no control over what is happening in their life. This can have both emotional and financial costs.”

Figuring out where to go after a crisis means finding an available bed. Moving before a crisis means choosing a new home.

“People who come in proactively are healthier and can really engage in campus life. They feel good, so they can get to know their neighbors and try new activities,” said Linda Dickson, director of community relations at Redstone Highlands in southwestern Pennsylvania. “Then, when health changes happen, they already have a circle of support from their friends on campus.”

Not all triggers for choosing senior living are crises. Some people decide that they want to live differently. They are tired of cutting grass or cooking dinner or get bored since they cannot drive. They want to be at a place where there are people and activities. This desire for less work and more engagement can precede a move as well.

See the big picture. Bernadette Chang, director of sales and marketing at Westminster Gardens in Duarte, California, says that people looking at senior communities often focus their attention in the room or rooms they are moving into and become overwhelmed.

“The apartment may be smaller than a three-bedroom home and there just won’t be room for everything, but they are getting access to the whole campus and a community of people who will love and care for them,” Chang said. She encourages imagining yourself in the gardens and common areas of the new community and not just in the personal space.

Lynn Alexander, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, says good care is more than a lovely campus.

“So many people get caught up in a beautiful environment, but things like ratios of caregivers to residents, feelings of control, programs that are of interest and sense of community can be even more important than the decor,” she said.

“A building is a building,” said Nicole Muller, president of Occupancy Answers, a consulting firm for senior living communities. “It’s best to get to know the unique personality of a community. We encourage people not just to tour a building but have a meal and participate in the programs so they can truly experience being in the community. It’s even possible to ask for a trial stay.”

Talk on the tour. Don’t rely solely on the person giving the tour to inform the decision about what is best for you. Talking to the residents and caregivers can allow for a broader view. Residents can give an unvarnished look at what happens each day and describe how their needs are met — or not. Asking the staff how long they have worked there and how often workers come and go can say something about morale. Stopping in unannounced during off-peak hours with fewer staff around can provide a look at things like morning and evening rituals and the slower, weekend pace.

“And don’t forget to ask the money questions,” advised Dickson, “especially about benevolent care.” Some places may terminate the relationship because of an inability to pay and the search for a new home then begins all over again. Senior communities that have some sort of benevolent care fund will help residents remain in the community even if they outlive their financial resources.

Also, be sure you compare apples to apples when making the financial decisions.

“When it comes to pricing and contracts, know what is included in the monthly fee or entrance fee. Make sure you are clear on what future care is included in the contract you sign. Paying attention to the details is important,” said Dickson.

Finally, ask about club programs. Many senior living communities are opening their doors and providing activities to people who still live at home. This “try before you buy” offer allows participation in activities before moving in. Making friends and becoming familiar with the facility and programs can make the transition to senior housing easier.

Leaving home for a senior living community is not always easy. But the mission of many communities is to empower their residents to live their best life at every age. Chang says moving to a senior living community can be like going to a party you aren’t sure you want to attend.

“You are nervous and hesitant at first, but once you get there you meet people you like and have a good time. In the end, you’ll be glad you went,” she said.

 Sue Washburn is the pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and a freelance writer.

Making decisions together

Knowing the right time and finding the right place for a loved one can be a challenge for families negotiating late life changes. Conflict can arise within generations and between the senior and those responsible for his or her care. However, there are ways to make it go more smoothly.

Be good stewards. Family stewardship means participating holistically in the lives of loved ones and checking on life changes through every age and state. Being a good steward means stopping periodically to talk about the lives of the people we love, including their medical, physical, financial, social, emotional and spiritual needs. Too often conflict arises when people don’t talk, and expectations aren’t met.

Give your loved one as much control as possible. Choosing to move to a senior care facility is a big decision — emotionally, spiritually and physically. Moving out of a place that has been home for 30 years can feel like a loss and transition away from independence. Allowing a parent or loved one to have as much control as possible can ease their anxiety about the move. As the resource person, you can provide information, ask questions and make suggestions, but whenever possible the final decision should belong to the person making the move.

Be a team. Everyone involved should talk openly and honestly about what each person thinks they will be able to contribute to avoid misunderstandings and conflict. Can’t take Aunt Kay into your home? Tell her before she’s forced into a move. Can’t visit Dad every week if he chooses a community across town? Admit it before he signs a contract. Discuss the various options and levels of care with everyone involved to be sure the family is clear about who will provide what.

A quick guide to senior care terminology

When most people think of senior living, they imagine infirm people confined to a bed or wheelchair. However, that is just one level of care in most facilities.

“Many people don’t realize how many offerings we have. A lot has changed in the field of senior housing and services,” said Linda Dickson, director of community relations at Redstone Highlands.

Independent living or senior communities offer small homes and apartments to people who need little care and meet a minimum age requirement. They may offer some dining services as well as entertainment and programs. They may or may not be part of a continuing care community.

Continuing care facilities offer multiple levels of care as the need for help increases. The facilities may begin with independent living and move through hospice care.

Assisted living allows seniors to live relatively independently but with some assistance for things like housekeeping, meal prep, showering and remembering medication. Most have staff to monitor the residents.

Skilled care offers the services of nurses and aides who provide 24-hour medical and daily care. Rehabilitation and IV medications may be administered.

Memory care caters specifically to patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Residents typically live in a designated and secure part of the assisted living or skilled care community to avoid wandering.

Hospice care — special medical, psychological and spiritual support for residents facing a life-limiting or terminal illness — is offered by many continuing care communities. Caregivers seek to provide peace, comfort and dignity at the end of life.

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