How to Find a Retirement Home That Keeps You Vibrant

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By Maryalene LaPonsie

Lynn Mercer sports a bumper sticker on her vehicle that reads "Living in the Cove and Loving It." That's how much the 67-year-old likes her retirement community, Colony Cove, in Ellenton, Florida.

However, not everyone is so enamored by the idea of moving to a community intended for seniors. "Unfortunately, people ... think of rocking chairs out on the front porch," says Jean Gallios, 88, who has lived at Emerald Heights, a retirement community in Washington state, for more than 22 years.

Like Mercer, Gallios says her experience has exceeded expectations, and her retirement community is a far cry from the stereotype of a dreary institution where seniors have tiny apartments or gather in bland communal rooms.

If your current home has become a burden, but you dread the idea of moving to a retirement home, you may be surprised by the amenities and atmosphere offered at many senior communities. Here are five tips to help you find a place to retire that won't make you feel like you're being put out to pasture.

1. Think Resort Community, Not Retirement Home

"The biggest misnomer is that retirement communities are for old people," says Lisa Hardy, CEO of Emerald Communities, which owns Emerald Heights, where Gallios lives. "There are lots of vibrant, young retirees living in communities across the U.S."

Hardy equates the experience of today's retirement communities to living on a cruise ship or visiting a resort. Depending on the community, there may be on-site restaurants, spas and entertainment venues. Residents could spend the day crafting in an art studio, swimming in the pool or visiting with out-of-town family who are renting a cottage on the property or staying in a community-run hotel.

If there is one thing these communities are not, it's institutional. That's one reason why Gary and Theresa Bennett were convinced to put down a deposit on the latest Emerald Communities development, Heron's Key, in Gig Harbor, Washington. With a variety of available floor plans, including apartments and cottages, and plenty of amenities, the couple decided Heron's Key would feel like home and not a facility.

2. Keep Continuing Care In Mind but Out of Sight

For many seniors, the prospect of needing extra care in the future is a motivating factor in the decision to move into a retirement community. Certainly, it was for the Bennetts who, at ages 69 and 72, respectively, already live in a condo in Gig Harbor but wanted the security offered by a community. "With family spread around, what happens to [my wife] if I pass away?" Gary asks.

Many retirement communities offer continuing care services that allow seniors to stay on-site but move into assisted living and skilled nursing settings. Seniors like Gallios and her husband, who saw three of their four parents require nursing home care, find comfort in knowing they won't have to go far if they can no longer live independently. What's more, Emerald Communities won't charge them anything extra per month for it.

While continuing care is an important consideration when selecting a community, you don't necessarily want it to be a constant reminder of where you might end up in a few years. Before selecting a community that offers continuing care, ask how the different care levels are arranged on-site. "People want to know skilled nursing is there," Hardy says, "but they don't want to see it."

3. Get Involved Before You Move

Checking out the amenities and people in advance is another way to find a retirement community that doesn't make you feel old. "The location was important to us," Mercer explains, "but it was also important to find a community with lots to do."

If possible, see if the communities on your shortlist allow prospective residents to join activities where they can meet other current or future residents. For example, even though the Bennetts' home is still in development, the community has been holding social events so future residents can cultivate friendships in advance of their move-in date.

4. Allow Time to Review Your Options

Taking time to find the right community is another reoccurring theme that emerges in conversations with happy retirees.

For Gallios, it was a 10-year journey to find the perfect home. After she and her husband spent a year cleaning out her parents' house after their passing, they decided to do things differently as they aged. The following year, on her husband's 55th birthday, they started their hunt for the perfect community. It was 10 years later, to the day, when they settled in as two of the earliest residents at Emerald Heights.

The Bennetts experienced something similar. Gary Bennett feared being in a situation in which one of his out-of-town sons would come for a long weekend that would result in a whirlwind tour of communities one day and moving in the next. He didn't want to end up in a high-pressure situation like that. Instead, he and his wife took their time to research options and ensure they could move, on their own terms, to a community they love.

5. Look Outside the 55-Plus Communities

A final tip to finding a retirement community that doesn't make you feel old may be to bypass retirement communities entirely.

Tammy Barry is the director of sales and marketing for Heritage Harbor Ottawa, a resort community about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago. She describes it as a "stroller to wheelchair" community that has attracted retirees as well as young families and singles. "What I've heard from residents is that they like they are in a resort setting but close to their kids and grandkids," she explains.

Seniors who go this route may want to consider factors such as property maintenance requirements, the availability of public transportation and proximity to health care providers. In the case of Heritage Harbor Ottawa, although it's not a continuing care retirement community, it is in the process of developing a memory care and assisted living facility on a neighboring property that will offer convenient care options to aging residents.

While not the same as a community catering to seniors, an all-ages resort community can meet the needs of older adults. "There's always an energy [here]," Barry says. "[You] don't have to feel like 'I'm one step away from the nursing home.'"

Retirement homes and communities may conjure visions of elderly residents shuffling about with little to do, but seniors in these communities disagree. According to Gallios, finding the right community means you can expect a life that's about as perfect as it gets.
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