Understanding senior retirement communities can be a handful. Different levels of care exist and the names seem to all blur into one huge puzzle. We help break down the different settings within senior retirement communities and offer tips on how to transition from your lived home into a new environment. 

Relocating is difficult enough as it is, but leaving your home with decades of memories can be even more challenging. We draw on experiences from older adults sharing why they left their homes along with what attracted them to a senior retirement facility. 

We also tackle a very sensitive topic shared among older adults – loneliness. Loneliness is experienced throughout all phases of life, but older adults arguably get the short end of the stick when it comes to having social outlets. The stereotype remains true that loneliness is quite common among older adults, but it can be avoided. We describe how senior retirement communities have helped older adults avoid succumbing to the pitfalls of what loneliness can bring. 

Senior Retirement Communities 

Independent Living 

Independent living communities are for older adults that are completely independent. What does it mean to be independent? This means that you’re able to carry on with your activities of daily living in the home and participate in community outings or activities without difficulty. If you’re able to complete these tasks listed below on a regular basis, you’re a good fit for this type of senior retirement community:

  • Get fully dressed without losing your balance, becoming short of breath, or needing multiple rest breaks in between. 
  • Get yourself in and out of the shower or tub without tripping or losing your balance. Having trouble with this particular task? Modifying is perfectly fine as well. Use a shower chair or a tub transfer bench to do the activity. Same rules apply – no tripping or losing your balance. 
  • Cook yourself a simple meal, if needed. 
  • Tidy up around the house during housekeeping tasks. 
  • Consistent handling of your medications without missing doses. You should also know why you’re taking each medication along with taking them at the correct time of the day. 
  • Carry out errands in the community without any confusion or forgetfulness – grocery shopping, delivering items, driving or navigating public transportations, making appointments. 

Three types of housing options are available under independent living communities – senior apartments, senior co-housing, and affordable housing. 

Senior Apartments

Most senior apartments are age restricted to older adults 55 or 62 years of age and older. If under the same household, only one person moving into the senior apartment needs to meet the age requirement. In other words, if either you or your partner is under the age of 55 or 62 years, as long as either you or your partner is 55 or 62 years, there shouldn’t be any problems. 

Exceptions to age restrictions are reviewed on a case by case basis. Most senior apartments, by law, have a rule that at least 80 percent of the residents staying at a senior apartment meet the age restrictions. This means that the other 20 percent can go to other individuals that can benefit from the amenities and accessibility of the facility. Persons with disabilities are most favored and have the highest likelihood of securing a unit in a senior apartment among applicants. 

Amenities, accessibility, and a convenient lifestyle are the main reasons for older adults making a transition to senior apartments. Amenities can range from simple and practical to luxury and premium, ensuring a fit for everyone depending on their needs and wants.

For more information on amenities, different options, and meeting qualifications, make sure to visit a previous article that shares more details and insight in depth. 

Senior Co-Housing

Senior co-housing is a concept that has been around for a while but has recently gained popularity as a desirable option for older adults looking for a new lifestyle among like-minded people. It is considered a close-knit community of private homes reserved for older adults 50 years of age or older. Set-ups vary from home to home, but the common blueprint involves a type of group living that brings older adults in a neighborhood or block together around a ‘common house’ with amenities – large kitchen, dining room, laundry, recreational areas, open spaces, and gardens. 

Residents of senior co-housing communities pride themselves on providing one another with mutual support, having self-governing rules agreed upon by all members, and being active participants within the neighborhood. If you’re looking for tons of social interaction and camaraderie, this is it. As with many things, the benefits of strong social support doesn’t just happen out of thin air, it’s often achieved through group building activities, listening and understanding to one another’s core values, and commitment. Achieving a successful co-housing community comes with hard work. 

Still anxious if there’s a community fit for you? Co-housing diversity runs prominent. Make sure to visit their website for the directory, inquiries, and classified ads. See below for different types of co-housing communities that have been established: 

  • Mixed gender
  • LGBTQ
  • Specific ethnic groups
  • Shared similar hobbies
  • Women only 
  • RV retirement parks
  • Faith-based 
  • Educational 

Affordable Housing

It’s no secret, housing is a large portion of our budgets and you should save where you can. Whether on a fixed budget after retirement or looking to save as much as possible, affordable housing is the most economical choice. 

Families or individuals are suggested to spend no more than 25 to 30 percent of their gross income on rent. If you find yourself spending much more than this suggested ratio of your income on housing, transitioning to affordable housing can give you more breathing room for your money spent better elsewhere – groceries, prescriptions, or that gift you should reward yourself. Still under the independent living umbrella, three affordable housing options are: 

  • Housing Vouchers: Known as ‘Section 8’ before, housing vouchers is a federal governmental program that helps very low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities afford a decent, safe, and sanitary home within the private market. In order to be eligible, your income must not exceed 50 percent of the median income in your immediate metropolitan area that you choose to live. Generally, once things are approved and you’ve found your new home, your rent is capped at 30 percent of your income with the federal government paying the difference to the landlords. 
  • Multi-family subsidized housing: The federal government incentivizes private corporations or owners to build affordable housing communities for low-income older adults. These communities have the mission to supply older adults with an affordable home to live in with amenities – accessibility, assist with cleaning, assist with cooking, group meals, and transportation. Similarly, residents in this program pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Qualifying for this program, residents must be at least 62 years of age or older, make less than 50 percent of the median income for the immediate area, and have a clean housing record. 
  • Public Housing: Public housing is a federally funded government program designed to prioritize securing homes for families and individuals with the least resources available. Older adults, families with very limited income, and those with disabilities tend to be on the top list for being able to secure public housing. A written application will be filled by you and an associate member of the local Public Housing Agency (PHA), team administrators working directly with governmental programs. In order to qualify, lower income limits are set at 80 percent and very low-income limits are set at 50 percent of the median income for the immediate metropolitan area. Once you and the PHA have found a home, you enter a lease agreement with the PHA and pay no more than 30 percent of your monthly adjusted income for rent. 

Adult Day Care Centers (ADCs)

ADCs are typically for older adults that require some form of supervision for social, physical, safety, and/or memory throughout the day. This is a good option for family structures that include a full or part time working person that is not able to care for the older adult during the day.

ADCs operate during business hours on weekdays, with some facilities offering evening and occasional weekends programs. Older adults attending ADCs are known as participants and are provided with care from multiple staff members. How do ADCs function? 

  • Family members drop off their loved ones before they head off to work and pick them up before closing hours. 
  • During the stay at the ADC, participants enjoy a daily schedule filled with meals, snacks, social activities, fitness programs, leisure time, educational courses and more. 
  • Services provided include toilet needs, hygiene needs, medical care, meals, medication management, and more. 
  • Support groups are offered for families needing a little extra help to learn strategies to care for their loved ones at home. 
  • Transportation options are available at some facilities to assist with getting to the facility or for community outings. 

If you find yourself having trouble staying safe in your home while your family members are gone for work during the day, ADCs are a good option. Feeling apprehensive about this transition is common. Many older adults find themselves resistant at the beginning. With time and finding the right facility, many family members and older adults have found respite, increased autonomy, and respect with their new ADC families. With engaging activities, opportunities to meet new companions, and ensuring you stay safe, ADCs can provide you with the correct care to ensure that you can stay within the walls of your own home for as long as possible. 

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs)

CCRCs are considered residential communities that provide older adults a home along a continuum of care – independent living, assisted living, and memory care. The goals of CCRCs are to:

  • Provide home-like atmospheres with a diverse range of supportive services
  • Designed to maintain resident’s autonomy and independence for as long as possible
  • Convenience of transitioning to an environment that can provide more physical, medical, and memory support within the exact same setting with familiar team members 

Structuring of CCRCs usually include multiple floors and wings within the same building. Each floor is designated to the level of care that is provided. The facility is staffed with a full medical team – medical doctors, nurses, nurse assistants, occupational/physical therapists, social workers, and pharmacists. 

  • Independent Living: Independent living units are for older adults that do not require health-related assistance, can complete all of their self-care/grooming tasks without help, and do not need physical assistance throughout their day. Many residents move into this style of unit to enjoy the amenities, anticipate a potential decline in health, or relish in the security of being able to transition to assisted care conveniently. Units include styles with an apartment, duplex, or even a cottage layout that can range up to 2,000 square feet. 
  • Assisted Living: As you find yourself needing more help with your activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, and toileting, making the transition to this unit is highly suggested. Staff are able to come into your apartment or single room to personally help you bathe, get dressed, or go to the bathroom as needed or on a scheduled basis. Handling of medication and meals are also provided in this level of care. Units can range from 300-600 square feet.  
  • Memory Care: Memory care units are specialized for older adults that have become more forgetful or have formally been diagnosed with dementia. Staff pay closer attention to residents in these units and can provide assist with all care or as needed. Staff workers typically have a controlled patient-to-staff ratio to ensure the safety for all residents. Assistance is provided for all administration of medications, self-care tasks, and self-hygiene. Units are similar to assisted living units, ranging from 300-600 square feet in private rooms.

Amenities are a large attraction for CCRCs. Most facilities are structured in a non-medical style as much as possible to promote a community lifestyle. A range of amenities are offered at CCRS:

  • Fitness centers
  • Private dining room
  • Indoor swimming pool
  • Spa
  • Game room
  • Formal dining room
  • Convenience store
  • Gift shop
  • Beauty/Barber shop
  • Bank
  • Chapel
  • Coffee Shop
  • Bar and grill
  • Gardening area
  • Library
  • Arts and crafts studio

Who’s a good fit for CCRCs? Most older adults see CCRCs as an attractive option because they anticipate that their health may be declining within the near future despite currently being independent. Let’s look at an example of why someone may decide to transition into a CCRC setting. 

  • You’re still able to carry on with most of your daily activities such as getting dressed, bathing, and going to the bathroom. Things that have become increasingly difficult include cleaning up the home, neglecting household duties, skipping out on meals because it’s a chore to cook, or being unsteady on your feet from time to time without falling. Without any social support from friends or family, older adults transitioning to the independent option of the CCRC would be a good choice. 

Pushing and Pulling Factors

Why does someone decide to move from their homes to senior living communities? For many older adults, they are looking for a new lifestyle that has largely been influenced by ‘push and pull factors’. Reframing this term, you can consider ‘push factors’ as things or reasons that coerced, pressed, or repelled you to transition away from home. ‘Pull factors’ can be understood as attractive things or reasons that senior living communities offer that your current lifestyle didn’t have. 

A research study looked at the reasons why older adults moved to retirement communities and what their perspectives were like as newly relocated residents. The answers were clumped into two main themes – push and pull factors. What were the responses? 

The ‘push factors’ included: 

  • One’s own failing health or a spouse’s failing health. An elderly woman described her and her husband’s continual decline in health as follows: “My husband [was] diagnosed with Parkinsonism, you know, I was no longer able to take care of him and take care of myself. . . . It is hard, I mean, we needed help. . . . So we decided to move here.”
  • Getting rid of responsibilities. A 76 year old resident shared: “I was alone, and there was too much work to keep up farms. . . . I could not do it. . . . It was a strong desire to be free from responsibilities.” Similarly, a 77 year old woman described her reason for moving as: “[It] seems like a sensible thing to do . . . a place where I can live with less responsibility, others can do stuff for me.”
  • Unavailability of help. An 84 year old male was asked “What led you to come here?” and responded: “I was not assisted outside . . . never married . . . do not have a family. . . . It was hard taking care of myself. . . . I was thinking why I shouldn’t come to a place where I can find assistance. . . . It was hard but I made it.”
  • Facility closed. A 65 year old woman replied her reason for relocation was: “the other home closed. . . . It was very different from this one. . . . I like it here too. . . . It was hard in the beginning . . . but once I made friends here . . . things turned out good.”
  • Loneliness. A woman in her 70s described her reason for being forced away from her home: “[I was] unable to live on my own. I felt lonely. . . . I needed people and friends.” Another 95 year old gentleman shared his personal reason for relocation as: “loneliness . . . nobody around to talk to. . . . I feel that my life is ending. . . . I was afraid to move and there were a lot of conflicts. . . . It was hard to do it . . . but things have turned out very well.”

The ‘pull factors’ included: 

  • Location. An 86 year old woman shared the importance of the location of the facility as in close proximity to her family: “[It was] close to my two daughters . . . so they can visit me frequently. . . . I mean, I do not have to worry about seeing them every now and then.”
  • Familiarity and reputation of the facility. An 82 year old woman expressed her reason for relocation as: “[I was] so familiar with [name of the facility] . . . it was not a problem at all to move here, I mean, I feel like I’m at home. . . . [It’s a] nice feeling to have . . . you know . . . and to live with. . . .”
  • Security. Five residents expressed that security was a large attraction for moving into a senior retirement community. A 68 year old man reported: “It was [my] wife’s idea. . . . She was concerned about what would happen to her if something happened to me when I was diagnosed with a heart attack. . . . It was also an opportunity to provide her with socialization.”
  • Joining friends. Some residents found it natural to move as they already had some friends that spoke well of the facility: “I have friends here. . . . We all went to school together . . . graduated at the same time . . . and shared every single moment together. . . . It was nice and fun joining them here. . . . I mean, you feel that they are part of your past and . . . your future as well.”

Many older adults found themselves apprehensive with their decisions to move into a senior retirement community. Many pros and cons were weighed together, but ultimately it was decided that moving into a senior retirement community was the correct choice. These were termed ‘overlapping factors’ by the researchers as some were faced with indecisiveness: 

  • An 80 year old woman described that she experienced loneliness in her previous home and the desire to join her friends: “[I] could not stay at home by myself. . . . It is awful to feel lonely. . . . I mean, it was a good idea to come here and to join friends whom you can talk with. . . . They have your same circumstances. . . . You know, you do not feel that you are solely in this situation. . . . Residents here made the move much easier.”

As you find yourself asking yourself “Why do you want to relocate?”, hopefully you were able to find your own voice in these responses shared by many older adults having already made the transition. Maybe you have new reasons to add to the push and pull factors. As many of the responses resonated with one another, each had their own story to tell and so do you. There’s no right or wrong reason for relocating to a senior retirement community aside from your safety, happiness, quality of life.  

Relocation: Stress or Positive Outcomes

Moving from place to place puts an incredible amount of stress on a person. Transitioning from a home that you’ve lived in for decades to a new senior retirement facility is not spared from this stress. What makes the difference between making a stressful or positive experience in a person’s decision when relocating comes down to two very important realities – were you pushed by circumstances or was the choice yours? 

A term coined “relocation stress syndrome” was formally developed by a team of researchers. The conclusion made by the team was that changing from one environment to another puts an incredible amount of biological, psychological, and social disturbance on an individual. Older adults transitioning from their long lived homes to a senior retirement community is arguably one of the most difficult transitions. 

Are all relocations met with negative experiences? Not all the time. A summary of research shares several positive experiences that have come specifically from older adults transitioning to a senior retirement community: 

  • Many residents shared they felt much more secure and less lonely after having made the transition once they were able to settle down. 
  • Having a sense of relief from household responsibilities and being able to discover new love and affection were opportunities that would not have otherwise been experienced if residents didn’t make the transition. 
  • 94 percent of residents that participated in a research interview shared that they were satisfied with their health after moving to an independent living community. 

Back to the question of “What makes a positive experience?” The answer seems to overwhelmingly be ‘being in control’ or ‘having the perception of having a choice in the matter of relocating’. 

As an example, if an older adult is allowed no input in their transition to a senior retirement community, they may feel depressed, hurt, abandoned, frustrated, angry, or feel as if they are being punished. These feelings are followed by older adults reacting with resistance, making heavy demands, withdrawal, or acting out negatively against family or staff. Residents and families share their experiences and discontent:

  • Relocated residents and their families described the lack of preparation and the lack of the ability to exercise choice as “they were deceived by the transferring facility and were given little time to prepare”. 
  • Furthermore, they expressed feeling pressured regarding relocation without having adequate information; they felt that the move indicated a lack of control over their lives and feared the unknown concerning future relocation. 
  • Many family members described the process of making preparations and the decision to move as “chaotic” and “rushed”; they felt deceived for not giving more consideration to facilities located closer to their homes

Here are some suggestions for creating a positive experience for yourself and your family: 

  • Plan ahead and become familiar with facilities. Doing physical site visits are highly encouraged well ahead of time before making the transition. Attempt to develop relationships with the staff or even residents at the facilities and ask about the care that is available and provided. These tactics lead to increased feelings of security and socialization. 
  • Ask staff for videos that describe the facility and their mission if you’re unable to complete a physical visit. Inquire about individual counseling, group discussion with family members, and ways to help you express your feelings about the transition. 
  • You’re entitled to an explanation regarding the benefits of the facility and ensuring things are done under your reasonable terms. Make sure that you verbalize to your family members when you would like to move and what your terms are. 
  • Ensure staff are responsive to all needs of residents and if it’s possible to meet with a few residents to hear their personal experiences. 

New Companionship

Loneliness was a theme mentioned earlier that is often experienced by many older adults before making the transition from the lived home into a senior retirement community. We’ve all experienced the loss of a loved one at some point in our lives. For older adults, the loss of loved ones is unfortunately an inevitable phase of the human life, with the most disheartening being a lifelong marital spouse. 

It’s evident that the loss of loved ones is irreplaceable, but you don’t deserve the negative feelings that result from loneliness. An amazing team of researchers found that older adults that have lost a lifelong spouse found new companionship and even new forms of intimacy in a CCRC facility. 

These newly formed companionships among residents in CCRCs were titled as “Not living together yet all the time together”. In other words, some residents developed close relationships they categorized as ‘friendships’, such that they spent a significant portion of their day together but lived in their own separate units within the same CCRC facility. Let’s hear some of their stories: 

  • An 87 year old woman shared her relationship with another male resident as a friendship but distinguished that it wasn’t a partnership: “We somehow began to get friendly and since then we meet here and there. He comes to me, I go to him for a short while usually in the afternoon and sometimes we go for a walk when the weather is good, and it’s going on so far, I think for a year or so. What we have is friendship.”
  • A staff member detailed her observations of a man and woman’s time spent together at the facility: “It’s each one living apart. He’s in his apartment, she’s in her apartment and they come down together, they have activities together, at performances, everything together. They go out shopping together, I see, they come to all kinds of activities together, they sit together, serve each other snacks. They go out together to have coffee outside of the place here. You see that they are the entire time together.”
  • Another staff member shared details about a different man and woman’s daily routine at the CCRC: “Each has his own unit here, but they are together a lot, many hours together. The younger ones also travel abroad. There are those not in a state to travel anymore, but they go to the theatre together, she prepares a sandwich for him and she pays attention when he eats well. She pays attention to what happens, what he eats. There is someone who pays attention to him, that cares, that doesn’t allow foreign forces to invade their space as a couple.”

Many of the residents that were interviewed were careful not to call their relationships as being a ‘partnership’ or categorizing themselves as being a ‘couple’. All in all, it’s all labels and a play of words. What’s most important is that residents are able to find ways to combat loneliness – a phenomenon that so often engulfs the well-being of older adults.

Conclusion 

Transitions are best dealt with when prepared for. Take the time now to reconsider and plan out a timeline if you and your family considered the idea of transitioning yourself into a senior retirement community. Your thoughts and opinions matter too. Having the power to have a say in your future and transition may ultimately decide how happy and content you are with your new lifestyle.