Retirement Communities Today: Not Your Grandfather's Old Folks' Home

road sign saying safe haven just aheadThis is the second of a two-part series about retirement community living. Read the first part, "Keys to Finding the Right Retirement Community."

By Philip Moeller

CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- What's it really like to live in a retirement community? On a recent warm and humid day, 10 residents sat down for Sunday brunch and divulged their experiences at Heron Point, a relatively small continuing care retirement community that houses 270 residents. Like many continuing care retirement communities, or CCRCs, residents can remain here for the rest of their lives because the community provides a full range of assisted living and nursing care in addition to independent living units.

Throughout the country, there are roughly 1,700 to 1,800 CCRCs. While some are rather posh, the residents stressed that it would be a mistake for Americans to think they cannot afford a comfortable CCRC. The secret to affording a nice retirement community, they say, was having the foresight to plan and recognize what they wanted out of life when they were still young and healthy enough to do something about it.

The residents we spoke with included four couples, a widow and a widower. Some were new to the community, and some had been there more than 10 years. They ranged in age from Carol Kerbel and Nancy Tinucci, both 72, to Jane Fox, who gave her age as 91 but later explained she had just celebrated her 92nd birthday less than two weeks earlier, so she really still thought of herself as 91.

Regardless of their ages, peace of mind for their children and loved ones was one of the main motivators for packing up their belongings and coming here.

The Decision to Move: Planning skills were evident in this group, and it was clear they had spent a lot of time thinking about their decision before moving to Heron Point. Visits to many communities are the rule, not the exception. Several emphasized it was important to be able to see themselves as much older, frailer seniors in the future and know their needs would be met at that site.

Nancy Tinucci, 72, advises people not to wait too long to make the shift into a retirement community. "Do it now when you can enjoy these years," she says.

A full-service CCRC usually admits healthy seniors. The average age of a new resident is in the low 80s, but the communities want to attract younger people. There is a membership fee that begins around $250,000 for a modest apartment and scales upward for more spacious living quarters. In addition, monthly living expenses can range from $2,500 to double that and more.

The distinctive feature about a CCRC is the first "C" in its label: Continuing. Once admitted, residents can stay in the same community for the rest of their life, moving into assisted living and then on into nursing care as they age. The particulars of paying for these care services vary by community. At Heron Point, monthly expenses don't increase if a resident needs assisted living or nursing care.

The comfort of knowing what will happen to them over time is especially important to family members. "Coming to Heron Point is like getting a life insurance policy for your children," says newly arrived resident Richard Jones, 82, who moved to Heron Point with his wife, Robyn, 81, from Anne Arundel County, Md.

"We have five children," adds Jim Twohy, 73, who moved to Heron Point in 2011 with his wife, who recently passed away after a long illness. "Each of them have thanked us for moving here."

The certainty of future care and the predictability of expenses meant a lot to the residents. Planning ahead seemed important to everyone, and knowing how to deal with future health and expense issues relieved a lot of stress.

While the recession made some families think twice about spending extra to move mom or dad to a CCRC, the residents say the costs are reasonable. "There's a mistaken impression that people can't afford this," says Ginny Lance, 82.

For a two-earner couple who own a home, entrance to a CCRC may be affordable by selling the residence to generate the membership fee, and then using Social Security to fund monthly expenses. That's not true for everyone, but it illustrates that CCRCs can work for some middle-class budgets. Portions of the membership payment and the monthly expense payments may also be tax-deductible as medical expenses, further reducing the net cost of CCRC living.

"On a month-to-month basis, it's cheaper to live here," says Ed Tinucci, 76, who moved to Heron Point from New Jersey with his wife, Nancy, 72.

Finding a New Family: During the conversation, residents expressed that they preferred the independence of not living with their children, and seeing grandchildren occasionally was an acceptable trade-off to them.

"Our son lives in Arizona; our daughter lives in New Jersey," says Ed Tinucci. "We love our children, but we don't want to live with them!" Many other residents at the table nodded in agreement.

In some respects, the seniors have become family members to one another. For Carol Kerbel, 72, that's literally the case. After moving here from New Mexico with her husband, Kent, 72, Carol convinced her sister to relocate to Heron Point from New Mexico as well. "We have a greater sense of community in a CCRC than we have anyplace else in our life," Kent says.

Beyond family and friends, a key value noted by the residents was the opportunity to lead active lives. No one thought of where they now live as a retirement home. With many people still active in their 80s and 90s, the residents stressed that a retirement community is a place to live, not a place to get ready to die.

"It's really important for people to think about the kind of community they want to live in," Ginny Lance advises. "To me, if you're active in a community, that's the secret." Her husband, Dick, 81, is a former college professor and finds nearby Washington College a wonderful resource for his continued interests in learning and education. Meanwhile, several residents are choral singers.

"We've always been busy people," says Nancy Tinucci. Her husband agreed that they're far busier and more engaged with activities than they were before he retired. "We've changed our address, not our lifestyle," Nancy explains. The Tinuccis moved to Heron Point from a 55-plus community and say they have never looked back.

"There's a perception out there that this is an old folks' home," says Kent Herbel. "But this is the youngest group of people we've ever lived with."

More from U.S. News:
12 Surprising Facts About Boomer Retirement
7 Ways to Turn $250,000 Into Retirement Income
When Should You Delay Retirement?

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