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One Kind of Retirement Choice

category_bug_journal2.gif Most people, given a choice, would prefer to remain in their homes until they die. Personally, I dread the day that I might no longer be able to live independently. I like my home, my library, my garden, my “stuff”. No retirement village for me! I’ll live here until I die – quietly in my sleep.

That is, unless I don’t. And none of us can know the future.

A week ago, I had an opportunity to visit Monarch Landing, a retirement community in Naperville, Illinois, that is built and maintained by Erickson Retirement Communities, owned and operated by the man, John Erickson, who owns Retirement Living Television.

The occasion was an in-house fair for residents and any others from the surrounding area who wanted to attend. More than 500 people took part in health screenings, musical performances, Wii games (which are highly popular with residents), face painting and other activities for children, a lot of good food and the opportunity to find out what living at Monarch Landing is all about.

Before that weekend, I had never been to a retirement community, had no idea what to expect and why should I? Retirement places are not a hot topic with the general population of present-day America and no one tells us what it is really like. So I arrived ignorant - and left having learned a lot.

What I found was a vibrant group of about 150 residents ranging from age 62 to 90. The community is new, still being built and will eventually house several hundred residents and include an assisted living area, respite care, Alzheimer’s care and long-term care. The majority get around on their own two feet. A few use canes, walkers or scooters.

From the outside, Monarch Landing looks like any modern apartment complex in a suburban setting – brick facade, attractive landscaping, a glass-walled swimming pool, a putting green, pleasant walkways, an area for individual gardens. In the community building there are two restaurants, a fitness center, computer center, meeting rooms for residents’ activities – gardening and books and current affairs clubs, etc. – a theater, a gift and deli shop, mail room, on-site medical center and such.

As I said, it looks like any well-maintained apartment complex anywhere in America - except it is full of elders. The only kids are visiting grandchildren which is encouraged.

While I was there, I spoke with a lot of the residents all of whom are happy with their choice. One of them gave me a stern wakeup call.

Sharon Morse is 63 years old, a retired special education administrator who moved to Monarch Landing in October 2006, when it opened. She visited many retirement communities before choosing this one and did a prodigious amount of homework. The complexities of the various kinds of elder living are many and government regulations are as complicated as you would expect. Sharon appears to have all that knowledge under control and made her decision accordingly.

Like many other residents I spoke with, Sharon traded her home for Monarch Landing because she doesn’t want to move again in her lifetime and she tired of the maintenance and ongoing upkeep of a house.

But Sharon also gave me three of the most compelling reasons I’ve ever heard to seriously consider a retirement community:

Not Becoming a Burden
In past discussions about late life here at Time Goes By, pretty much everyone who commented expressed their strong desire – even need – to not become a burden to their children. Readers were referring to the possibility of such conditions as Alzheimer’s or becoming permanently disabled in some other way.

But Sharon goes further and earlier with this thought. She does not want to be nagging her children to help with errands and chores that inevitably become difficult or impossible for some elders: mowing the lawn, moving some furniture, changing lightbulbs, picking up a prescription or, when the time comes to give up driving, taking us to the store, and all the other needs that will come up.

As Sharon spoke, I was reminded of the times in my life when someone has said with a sigh, “you know, we must make time to go paint Gran’s living room.” Perhaps we don’t realize how often we call on relatives and friends to help out and that is a kind of burden too.

Making One’s Own Decisions
Sharon, who is a decidedly no-nonsense sort of person, also said she chose a retirement community because she did not want to “let things just happen”. These days, hospital stays are about as short as a trip to the supermarket. They throw you out almost as soon as the anesthesia wears off.

So if you have a stroke or heart attack, for example, or have undergone a hip replacement, you will likely be in no condition to do the research as quickly as you will need it for the right kind of follow-up care in a rehab or nursing facility that suits you. Sharon knows that at Monarch Landing, should the need arise, she can move into the community’s continuing care area of assisted living or full-time nursing, not forced into a care facility she would not choose for herself.

“[Monarch Landing] may look like a hotel,” says Sharon, “but it’s not.”

Building a Community of Friends
If, as in the case of a stroke or heart attack, the need for support turns up suddenly, there will be no friends yet at a community an elder moves into. By planning for the future in this way, Sharon says, she is making new friends with like-minded interests now and knows they will be there for one another with the support, caring and companionship everyone needs.

Would I move into Monarch Landing? No. I’m a city girl and it’s in a suburb an hour from Chicago. Would I live in a place like Monarch Landing if it were in a city? A week ago, I would have said never, unless I am forced. This week, I’m not so sure.

Sharon Morse gave me a dose of reality about getting old and making plans while you’re still capable that I had not taken seriously. Something I have rejected out of hand in the past is now a possibility I will investigate further.

This is not a promotion for Erickson Retirement Communities. For a long time, I’ve been meaning to survey for us the many choices for retirement living there are today. The idea, over time, was to look into retirement communities, nursing homes, assisted living, co-housing, new types of communes and other individual choices for community living. But there are so many variables, so much information, so many differing philosophies that the research never ended.

Visiting Monarch Landing gave me a place, at last, to start. There are thousands of such communities throughout the United States I could have written about, but the Erickson people invited me to visit, so they win.

If you are interested, keep in mind that all communities operate differently. Take a leaf from Sharon’s book and do your homework, visit a variety of communities, read the fine print, talk to residents, investigate the financial structure, compare and then make your decision.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, kenju is back with More Childhood Memories about a chicken coop, snakes, paper dolls, scraped knees, ghost stories, picnics and more.]


My in-laws considered Ocean View in Falmouth, Maine but they have never looked into it. It looks nice from the outside.

This is helpful, Ronni. Gives me the nudge to crawl out of the denial space (while still agile) to do the homework now, rather than never. This post explains why "later" might not be an option (too rattled, too otherwise engaged in recovery from one assault or another, etc.). I usually dismiss conducting such research due to either/or thinking: Why spend (read: waste/squander) the present thinking about the unknown (not necessarily, given heredity, demographics, etc.) in a faraway never-never land? What a crock this kind of "thinking." Thanks for making such research cool, hip, spot on.

This has been a source of concern for me, too. Thank you for addressing it.

It looks as though Sharon could be the poster child for retired community living. In essence though, what she is saying is wake up, look deeply, question the viability, decide early about how you want to live and who you want to live with. If you are waiting, as you said Ronni, "to be forced out" of your present living situation, you might not make the decision to leave in early enough to make a transition and insure a good quality of life. I loved hearing about Sharon's ideas. She is obviously someone who doesn't have to cross the lane 20 times and be told this by her daughter, in order to make a smart choice (i.e., stop driving). That's one gusty, positive lady.

While I would far prefer a retirement community like Monarch Landing to a nursing home, I am afraid that I couldn't afford it. Some options are not available to all of us. I believe the governments that subsidize nursing homes for the impoverished should make that money available for an assisted living home. The thought of being warehoused is repungent to me. My constant wish is to die as you said, Ronni, in my own bed surrounded by my stuff.

My mother-in-law made my husband promise to never put her in a "home". He abided by that until after five years of lonely apt. living here in our area, she tried to heat some food on the stove top while it was in a plastic container. She was scared to death when we told her she had to go into an assisted living facility. After a week of living there, she loved it, became the darling of the staff and was heard to say that it was a pity she hadn't moved in much earlier.

Some of the assisted living places here are luxurious; with apartments or condos or separate homes. I'd consider one in a heartbeat, but since I am still working a lot, I don't need one now. Perhaps in 3-4 years, I'll be ready. I won't be sorry to leave this big house at all.

My husband and I want to stay in our home just as long as we can. And, as everyone says, without nagging the kids to do all of our "stuff" for us.
First thing we thought was, if we had this much square footage in a condo we would be paying a minimum of $500-600 a month maintenance fee.So, we decided to pretend that our home was a condo and we hire someone to cut the lawn,wash the windows,repave the driveway ,shovel the snow ,etc. It really doesn't cost as much as a condo fee would, and we get to stay in our own home.

My husband's brother is 92 years old and by doing the same thing he manages very well in his own home.

When the time comes when we can no longer do this, we will gladly go to an assisted living facility. In fact, we have an Erickson assisted living right here in our area and I know a couple who moved there and they love it.

My in-laws lived in two different assisted living centers; so I had plenty of chances to see how they are and they can be quite nice with good meals, activities, nice little apartments and in their case help until it reaches constant bed care. My biggest problem would be my cats as very few let you have your own pets. A few have a communal pet or two. I think they are nice places though probably for the most part. They had a studio kitchen, living area, bedroom and their own bathroom and it wasn't a bad rate. It escalated as her care needs increased. It'd have been tough for my mother as she had a dog and 4 cats when she died. That isn't a fit but fortunately she was able to live independently by being on the farm here close to us.

Some retirement communities do allow pets, as Monarch Landing does. And the apartments at ML are normal-sized ranging from one bedroom/one bath to two bedrooms/two baths, complete kitchens and washer/dryer in each apartment. Pretty much like most modern apartments except all doors are wide enough for wheelchairs and rooms big enough for easy turns.

No, it's not inexpensive, but not as much as I would have guessed.

People move in with full ability to care for themselves and move on to the on-campus assisted living or full-time nursing care as may become necessary. Even if a resident runs out of money, no one is every evicted.

A friend has moved into the Henry Ford Retiremement Community, also operated by Erickson. I was most impressed. She has a lovely apartment and even a small patio and a space where she can plant the flowers that mean so much to her. She has a full kitchen and can also walk down to the restaurant or cafeteria or have meals delivered if she feels like it. She can socialize as much as she wants, or not at all, and get her hair done, attend mass or purchase basic items. The initial cost was less than a comparable condo and it is all refundable to her heirs. She pays a monthly fee of about $1,700 which covers one meal a day and all her utilities.

I'm sold.

I wish my mom had chosen a retirement community. She would have enjoyed it, and it would have saved us a lot of problems.

Unfortunately, such a place is not an option unless a person has 175,000 to 250,000 for an entry deposit, and typically 1500 to 2500.00 per month in 'costs'.

Really interesting stuff! I grappled with the idea of assisted living for my mom prior to our decision on home care. Actually, the experience of assuming her care enriched our lives. While I agree that I would not want to burden my children, I am not sure I would want to live in assisted living either and doubt I could afford it. I hope more adult children will realize there are benefits to home care, especially once hospice becomes involved. By the way, the assisted living facilities I checked out in Boston had the requirement that the person be ambulatory on admission. At the time, I regretted Angieslist was not allowed to offer recommendations for this sort of thing.

My mom's two neighbors had very different experiences when they moved to assisted living. One disliked it intensely. She confided to her daughter with horror, "Everyone here voted for Bush!" This friend passed away a year later. The other elderly neighbor is thriving and prefers her expensive assisted living to Cape Cod. I have a personal friend whose parents were able to afford a nice assisted living complex near Philadelphia. They were very pleased for years. Then came problems. My friend's father was moved to the nursing facility, and it turned out to be awful. So, that is one more thing to check on if considering assisted living. I hope you will do more blogs on this topic, Ronni. Thanks for this one.

I was just talking to my neighbor an hour ago about this very subject! I found the perfect place about a year ago but couldn't meet the entry fee. Time to start looking again. Thanks for the reminder.

My mother moved into a retirement complex here in the UK. Not as grand as those in the states but she was happy at first. Unfortunately in the ten years she has been there the ethos of the place has changed. Originally for the able bodied, more and more wheelchair bound patients, whose mental state is such that they cannot converse, have been moved into the complex as the original tenants pass away. Mum now finds herself surrounded by strangers, many of whom cannot communicate, as she becomes more frail and unable to 'escape'. She can't afford to move now and there are anyway few of these places available here. How can one be sure that the home itself will not change as the years go by and the tenants age?

Ronnie - I was thinking along your lines, too, before I visited my parents in the retirement community they chose many years ago. I was exhausted after that trip! Ha. There is SO MUCH TO DO there! My parents have always been more active than ME and that didn't change just because they moved to a retirement community. It isn't one of the new places, but I think it's a pretty neat place. And there's a LOT of comfort for me, living way over here in Sweden, knowing that my mom lives in a place that can look after her in any circumstance. She's happy there, which is the most important, of course. She's actually still working! At 81! She runs the TV station they have there! Yikes!

Ronni: There is a downtown lifetime care facility now under construction in downtown Chicago: The Clare at Water Tower at Rush and Pearson Streets. That's where I plan to move in a year or so, or whenever the 53-story highrise is finished. I'll have a 2-bedroom "luxury apartment" on the 35th floor. Yes, it's expensive because of its location near North Michigan Avenue, but to me, a confirmed city person, it's the place to be. I have already lived in the suburbs, and didn't like it much. I like being close to all events, activities, museums, concerts, opera, and everything else. I have no children or grandchildren to make eldercare decisions for me, so I have made my own while I'm still able to do so. Check my blog, "Never too Late!" at http://www.seniorwriter.blogspot.com for several posts about the Clare and links to their web site.

I'm 63 and my husband is 68. To me housing has become my constant concern for I have seen first hand the deterioration of our neighborhood which we have lived in for 20 years; I do not want to grow helpless here. What I really want is to leave today but my brain goes round in circles--where?

I have a friend who moved to a retirement center that has graduated care. It is OK but I can barely
wait to get out of there when I go to visit her. All the closed doors on her floor make me claustrophobic. She has to eat lunch at 10:00 a.m. be-
cause she is on a walker!
Laundry can only be done one day of the week and on it goes. The whole scene terrifies me.

I too have a pet and that
causes limitations too. I
have only lived in an apartment at a very young age; I could not wait to get out. As you can see, I
am going around in circles.

Housing is probably THE MOST IMPORTANT issue for elders. I'd like to see more on this subject.
Donna in Arkansas

of the many significant posts here, i believe this one could be at the top of the must-read list for elders.

reading the comments, i'm impressed with the range of attitudes--and the willingness to express them.

pushed me to add a post on my blog tomorrow. thanks, ronni!

My Mother lives in a high rise retirement community just outside Portland, Oregon. Willamette View celebrated its 50th year a couple of years ago. She has all the advantages of living in the city as well as a beautiful view of the Willamette River. They do have a graduated care living system. I would move there today but my spouse wants his own workshop.

We moved into a Over 55 Mobile Home community in the Southwest. We participate in many of the activities and my husband now has his own workshop.
The only thing I would want is retirement from preparing 3 meals a day.

Hi Ronni

Great post as usual. I am at the moment wondering about "part time" types of care/activities for my own elderly mom. Any thoughts on that idea?

Kind regards,

Am glad you have been able to write about retirement communities that offer all levels of care from your personal experience of having visited one. They can be as different as day is from night, sometimes, even if owned by the same company. This is especially true if the company has taken over pre-existing facilities.

Satisfaction living in one has much to do with the prevailing type of residents living within the community and how much the culture is shared by any new resident.

The Erickson group you describe, whose materials were first sent to my husband, which I have continued receiving for well over a year, does sound as though they have some communities that would be attractive for many. They sound well worth investigating by prospective residents.

You've described well and accurately many of the considerations from my knowledge of having worked in several such settings for many years. Research, visit, research, visit, hopefully get to know well some residents and even some of the employees beyond those who give you the guided tour, or those to whom management refers you, if possible.

As with everything in life there are pros and cons about even the best of them. There is a certain amount of regimen and conformity on various levels in even the best of these communities that some, but not all, don't mind assimilating into. They do change over the years, too, which may or may not be to your liking.

If I can continue to remain living at home, hire whatever help I need for the house's exterior upkeep, transportation if I can't drive, and my personal care, that is still my preference. I never rule out the possibility circumstances could alter my view. Many factors come into play as to whether or not aging family members are burdens or not for others, so it's not automatic.

Uplands Retirement Village, near where I live, is also a wonderful alternative. Continuum of care, relatively inexpensive (originally designed for retired clergy, but open to all). Attractive, good, vibrant community. Church on-site, for those who want it. I might consider it, if I don't go to the Hilton.

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