It’s difficult to overcome stereotypes of senior living communities. Despite the fact that the level of available care and amenities, and the choice and type of facilities, have evolved significantly over the past several decades, people still tend to think of senior housing as the “old folks’ homes” of the past: antiseptic, white-walled, linoleum-lined institutions with cold nurses, hot temperatures, and nasty food. It’s no wonder then that the majority of people continue to buy into three myths about senior living institutions that are not only flat-out wrong but can actually be detrimental to the well-being of their aging loved ones. The three myths of senior living communities are:
1. All senior housing options are the same. The reality is that today’s senior living industry is similar to the hotel industry with a range of choices for every lifestyle, need and budget. You can find low-end chains that offer only the very basic in care and amenities, similar to a Motel 6. There are family-run operations, set up in residential homes, not unlike bed-and-breakfasts. And then there are high-end luxury options, comparable to a Four Seasons hotel. Too often, family members and seniors avoid even considering senior living options out of fear of the unknown and a misunderstanding of what present-day senior communities are all about. They are, unfortunately, relying on outdated childhood memories of when a grandparent or a great-aunt went off to a nursing home and never came back.
This does not have to be the case. At the higher end, senior living communities can provide lifestyle activity coordinators instead of program directors, and employ chefs instead of dieticians. They can offer on-site spas and appropriately equipped gyms, massage therapy services, manicures and pedicures, movie theaters, outdoor gardens, and gourmet dinners with wine on the menu. One new site even has a “man cave,” complete with pool tables and beer taps.
2. Entering a senior living community actually hastens the end of someone’s life. Assuming that a senior is better off “aging at home” can result in unnecessary suffering and even tragedy. Many seniors who could benefit from just a little added care are often found living alone, far away from family, largely isolated and devoid of much human interaction, and typically at high risk of physical falls, malnourishment, and depression. These seniors are perfect candidates for an assisted living community because, once they are living in a place where they have access to medical care, personal assistance, medication management, good nutrition, opportunities for mental and physical activity, and a chance to make friends and socialize, they truly thrive. In fact, several new studies show that not only does a move to an assisted living community not hasten a resident’s demise but, in fact, it can actually ensure a greater quantity — and a better quality — of life.
At many senior living communities there are residents who have renewed their childhood hobbies, or taken up new ones like writing, painting or billiards. There are residents who always have a dinner or coffee companion. They can enjoy on-site book groups and religious services. They can play checkers or Wii. Residents often enjoy unexpected romances and, in some cases, marriages. Family members, freed from the worry and guilt of seeing their loved ones in less-than-ideal circumstances, tend to visit more often, strengthening long-worn family ties through new opportunities for quality time and stress-free activities.
3. Only the very wealthy, and the very poor, can afford to live in a senior living community. The fact is that retirement and assisted living communities have been consciously created by senior housing developers to be very affordable for middle-class consumers. The monthly cost of assisted living varies, but the average for a more upscale residence is between $4,200 and $6,200 a month. At first glance, that sounds like a lot of money, and many a family member immediately thinks, “There is no way my mother can afford that.”
But the cost of assisted living needs to be carefully compared with the total cost of living at home. Ongoing expenses of seniors staying in their houses might include rent or mortgage payments; property taxes and homeowners insurance; utilities, such as electricity, heating oil or propane, water, trash pickup, cable, phone and Internet service; home maintenance costs, including lawn care, snow removal, tree care; routine and major repairs to the home (and appliances and other needed home equipment like an air conditioner or furnace); car maintenance; and food and cleaning supplies.
Additionally, as a parent or sibling ages, there are likely to be new costs including outside help with laundry, housekeeping, home upkeep and meal preparation; real-time monitoring devices and medical equipment; home health care; and transportation for medical appointments and other necessities. Those expenses, when taken in their entirety, are likely to be almost as much as or equal to the flat-fee monthly cost of an assisted living community. And most people are surprised when they realize that not only can their parents afford to live at one of these communities, but they actually have leftover funds.
Some seniors, of course, won’t have quite enough monthly income to pay the total or to pay for incidentals and will have to begin to tap their financial assets, whether that means selling their home, pulling funds out of an IRA or 401K or beginning to pay down their life savings. In other cases, children or siblings will help pay for the difference. And there are other options as well. Couples can share a unit, making for a discounted overall rate. Many communities offer smaller studio apartments and two residents can share a two-bedroom suite, which helps cut the monthly cost.
What most aging seniors need is some oversight by professionals who understand their unique needs. They need to be treated with kindness and dignity, like any other person whether they’re still sharp or are prone to forgetfulness, and whether they remain physically strong or are in need of a walker. Seniors will find all of that in abundance at today’s retirement and assisted living communities. For new residents, living away from the life they’ve always known is an adjustment, but—more often than not—they quickly realize that it’s a change for the better. And their family members and other loved ones soon realize that the three myths about senior living communities are just that.
Dwayne J. Clark is the founder and CEO of Aegis Living, currently with 28 senior living communities in Washington, California, and Nevada, and the author of “My Mother, My Son.” Visit him online at www.mymothermyson.com.