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My Parents Moved to a Retirement Community – Then Moved Out

6 ways your folks and you can avoid making the wrong choice

The decision to move into a retirement community is a huge one. And it’s not for everyone.

But when my nearly 80-year-old parents packed up 30 years worth of furniture and memories and hoofed it all the way from New York to California to enter a continuous care community (which provides various levels of care, from independent living to nursing home facilities), I knew they’d love it.

No more snow and cold in the winter and virtually no humidity in the summer. Plus, they’d be closer to me. And this particular community offered three meals a day included in the monthly fee.

What could go wrong? Turns out, a lot.

After only eight months, they’re moving back to New York. Nothing I said could change their minds. What happened ­— and how can you and your loved ones avoid making this same mistake?

I know from researching the facility prior to their moving in that my parents would be among a very small percentage of residents (less than 10 percent) coming from outside the state. So one bone of contention for them was not knowing the area.

They also came from a rural part of New York where traffic jams simply don’t exist. Driving on a 10-lane, congested California freeway intimidated my mother so much she never even tried to get her driver’s license; yet she drove all the time back east.

In addition to traffic differences, I asked experts what people should consider before deciding on an active adult community. Their answers:

If you own a dog or cat or enjoy adding flowers to your windowsill and the association doesn’t allow it, these rules could be a deal-breaker.

What Types of Activities Do They Offer?

Some communities offer more activities than others and promote them more heartily, which helps strengthen social, wellness and fitness well-being. But if you’re not a “joiner” who likes a lot of group events, this could be a negative. “Although it is proven that people live longer and longer independently (an average of five years longer) when living within a community,” says Sarah Jolles, executive director of sales and marketing for two continuing retirement communities in suburban Philadelphia, Pa.

Many communities have access to a wide variety of amenities, says Valerie Dolenga, a spokeswoman for Pulte Homes, parent company of Del Webb, which runs active adult retirement communities around the country. “Depending on the location, choices can range from sports facilities, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Plus, there are fitness centers, some staffed with trained fitness professionals who can help achieve your fitness goals,” says Dolenga. This saves money versus paying for similar services outside the community.

Consider Family Ties

For some, moving closer to grandchildren and family are key factors when considering a move, says Dolenga.

“For others, the harsh Northeast winters are enough to escape to the Sun Belt states. When we looked at some of our studies, we found that among active adult buyers, a relatively small percentage were willing to pack up and go to a different climate, a different state, and leave everything behind,” she notes.

Dolenga also found that 70 to 80 percent of active adult buyers don’t want to leave their family, their local religious institution and their friends. “For retirees, the key is determining what is a stronger pull: closeness to parents, children and grandchildren or starting a new adventure in a new location,” she says.

Moving from a suburban town to a more metropolitan area (or a vibrant active community close to one), could be a pro or a con as well. “Many active adult communities are near popular cities and states, some are near major metropolitan areas and airports,” says Dolenga. “Oftentimes, retirees want to be close to urban amenities, near shopping/retail, restaurants and cultural opportunities in the area.”

What Are the Community Rules?

Sometimes retirees think active adult communities are restrictive, says Dolenga. They may ask: “Can I add flowers or personalize my home? Can I own a dog or a cat? Can I have out-of-town guests or have my grandkids visit?”

Homeowners associations help keep the community looking beautiful and inviting. But if you own a dog or cat or enjoy adding flowers to your windowsill and the association doesn’t allow it, these rules could be a deal-breaker.

Take a Test Drive

My parents did not take advantage of the community’s offer to stay a couple of nights in a guest suite before making a decision, although my dad claims it would not have made a difference. A brief visit could be useful in some cases, however.

Del Webb offers a program where prospects can stay at a fully furnished home in the community, have access to a golf cart and the amenity center, maybe play a round a golf and participate in all the activities.

“The visitor even has [his or her] own resident ambassador who tours them around the community and introduces him or her to residents who share the same interests,” says Dolenga. “If that’s not an option at the community, stay a few weeks in the area to get a feel for your surroundings and see if it’s a match for you.”

Job Markets or Retirement

If you plan to continue working part-time in retirement or even starting a business then, when looking for your next home, consider healthy job markets or locations near work centers, says Dolenga. “Look for employment corridors that allow you to work and also enjoy a round of golf, movie night or a theater group performance.”

Check Out the Culture

Ask about weekly gatherings, traditions and “unwritten” rules you may be expected to follow, too. For example, in my parents’ case they were “encouraged” to wear red on Fridays to honor veterans. Every Friday. My parents don’t own a lot of red clothing and did not pay much attention to this practice, which raised an eyebrow or two.

Plus, their lack of participation in the (many) social get-togethers also elicited occasional negative comments.

In one instance, my dad (who’s 78) was asked to play the role of one of The Seven Dwarfs. He (“fortunately,” he says) was undergoing surgery for a pacemaker on that particular day and legitimately sidestepped the opportunity. Many other residents welcomed these social events, however, so the appeal is highly individual.

“Nearly everyone else we met seemed very happy, but it just didn’t work for us,” my dad told me.

Clearly, what works for one person may not work for another, so take your time and consider all your options before making a move.

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