The Weirdness of Planning for Extreme Old Age

Garish yellow flowers flaunt themselves while Dearly escapes through the front door

Garish yellow flowers flaunt themselves while Dearly escapes through the front door

My husband and I aren’t getting any younger. In fact, looking at us, you’d say we’re downright old. It’s taken me two years to accept that at 72, I’m no longer “middle-aged”: now I qualify as elderly.

Last year I began to think about what we’d do when we’re too old to drive. In suburban America, you either have access to your own transportation or you languish. We visit the public library, gym, grocery store, bank, gas station, doctor, dentist, Target, Costco. We pick up grandchildren from elementary school (on foot, if it’s nice weather), or from day care, which requires driving.

Taking a taxi is out of the question. The fares would be astronomical. Even the fares for Lyft or Uber would be astronomical, given all the places we visit. So—what to do?

In August we accepted an invitation to tour a continuing care retirement community I’ll call Gatsby Woods. (In fact, I’ve changed the name of every such community mentioned in this post.) Situated in a neighboring county, it occupies a very large parcel of land and from a distance, looks rather bleak—a collection of buildings rising from a flat landscape.

However, up close, it looks quite different. The campus itself is beautifully landscaped with trees, flowers, grass, and walking paths. The buildings are all low-rise, reaching only four stories high, connected to each other by enclosed walkways. In driving rain, falling snow, or searing summer sunlight, one need never venture outside.

The main “club house” offers a swimming pool, exercise room (with trainers on staff), a small but well-appointed auditorium for concerts, a hairdresser, a spa, a small general store where one can buy birthday cards, fruit, and vegetables, a nice restaurant, and a delicatessen. There’s even a pub and a “casual dining” restaurant in one of the other buildings. Each day a shuttle bus conveys the residents to a different shopping center. Excursions are offered to interesting places off-site and lectures are offered on site. The residents can even grow flowers and vegetables in garden plots set aside for that purpose.

The apartments, which range from one bedroom to three bedrooms, offer their own laundry machines and updated appliances.

Well, guess who fell in love instantly and wanted to move there! So we joined The List and set about finding an apartment. We were offered a lovely one, so we put our house on the market. We are the original owners of the house we bought in 1976 and have lived here since we bought it.

Gatsby Woods sent a packer to help us downsize and pack, and we hired one of the realtors they recommended. The realtors were a married couple, very nice, who told us we would have to make certain updates.

We spent thousands of dollars doing just that. It wasn’t only a matter of painting the walls an icky “neutral” color. We had to hire people to cart off half the furniture (which broke my heart), and half the books and paintings. Not only that, we had to rescreen the porch, spend hundreds on flowers for the front flowerbeds, replace the front door, and have a doorway cut from the dining room to the garage. It was traumatic. I didn’t mind parting with the hardback best sellers, but I minded very much parting with the other books. It felt as if someone were sawing off my limbs one by one.

At last, in October, the house was ready to show. We had to vacate the premises of course, when potential customers arrived, although the realtors were very good about letting us know well ahead of time. They also did a nice job of staging the house.

All to no avail: during the month our house was on the market, not a single offer did we receive. Worse, after the realtors urged us to drop the price, we realized that after everything was subtracted, we wouldn’t have enough left to buy a place at Gatsby Woods even if we did sell it.

We were distraught at the feedback from potential buyers. “The hardwood floors don’t match,” they whined. Huh? I never noticed. To me, a hardwood floor is a surface which, if the dog pees on it, can be cleaned far more easily than carpet can. Who cares if it’s a different hardwood on each level? Crushed, we decided to take the house off the market and wait.

Okay. Admittedly, we kinda got hooked on the way the place looked. Not with the ick-colored paint the realtors chose to cover the walls, but with the lack of clutter and the empty bookshelves. Even now, six months later, we haven’t rehung the pictures or put the books back.

In the spring when Snowzilla melted and we could once more venture out, we looked at a place down the parkway from us, called Hartnett Hall. The sales director who invited us to tour the place was very nice, but the one building, although not a high-rise, turned us off. It sat smack in the middle of a neighborhood. There were no grounds where we could sit of an evening, no walking trails for us, nowhere we could walk the dog. It didn’t help that it was a dark day pouring with rain when we visited. Whereas at Gatsby Woods, there were people walking outside with dogs, or sitting inside drinking coffee and chatting, here there were almost no residents visible apart from one old man sitting gloomily in a corner and a group of three women in the cafeteria. It was dark inside, and the apartment we saw was extremely small.

After we left, we looked at each other as we drove off through the rain. “No #$&! way.”

I should mention that at Hartnett Hall there was no “buy-in” for an apartment, but the monthly fee was enormous: $5,000 per month! That would be enough to bring on a heart attack in itself. No wonder they had a vacancy.

No “buy-in” fee was required at the next place we looked at, the Landings, down the road from us. It’s still being built, actually, with the first apartments to be ready in June. At a luncheon given by the sales team, we viewed the apartment floor plans in a slideshow presentation and they seemed quite nice. Again, however, the buildings, although still only four stories high, sit right on an extremely busy road with no surrounding campus of grounds. There would be nowhere for us to walk, nowhere for the dog. The buildings aren’t connected either. Although not as luxurious as Gatsby Woods, the monthly service fee as as high as that for Hartnett Hall.

Still with me? Wait until you hear about the next one!

At a nice luncheon and presentation by The Windrush Group, which emphasizes aging in one’s own home but with a package of monthly services, we absorbed the following facts: depending on the level of “plan” we chose, we could pay more than $100,000 (the older you are, the more you pay) to stay in the house we already own, plus a monthly fee of $400 or $500. The monthly fee covers services: for example, if you need a plumber, your case manager will call a plumber. You get to pay the plumber. If you need transportation to the doctor’s office, the case manager will call a taxi for you. You pay for the taxi.

After we smiled and said goodbye, we walked to our car. “No #$&! way,” I said to Dearly Beloved, who harrumphed and agreed.

But that’s nothing like what happened next. It so happens that Dearly Beloved, during his career with the airlines, met a very nice flight attendant who was also a trained nurse. (Few airline personnel, we learned, have just one job. Most have a couple.) She gave Dearly her card and mentioned she was starting a home health care service. We thought we would see what she had to offer, so we set up an appointment.

She came to our house one morning, unfortunately a couple of hours early so my husband wasn’t home from his errand yet. Nurse wanted to see the house, so I showed her around. She noted the number of bedrooms, the number of bathrooms (“The bathtub could be converted to a walk-in bath”), and mentioned the downstairs family room could be partitioned into two bedrooms.

My husband having returned by that time, we sat at the dining room table to discuss what she had to offer. We told her what we’d been through with Gatsby Woods and I think the poor dear inferred from the story that we are badly off financially (which is not the case). She said in Germany a new concept was taking hold, that of a group home for the elderly. “You could install a wheelchair ramp in front of the entry door,” she said enthusiastically, “and chair lifts inside.” (We have a split-level house with few stairs.) She said several people could live in our house and pay monthly rent. “That would give you an income,” she assured us. A rota of nurses or home health aides would be present 24/7 to supply the needs of the residents. When I protested feebly that our single-family house isn’t zoned for such a facility, she said we could apply for a permit.

After she left, I looked at Dearly Beloved and said, “No #$&! way.” I could just visualize our younger son trying to sell our house after we pop our clogs, and having potential buyers cavil at the wheelchair ramps, altered bathtub, and chair lifts!

So, to summarize, we have decided to stay where we are, keep calm, and carry on. At 85, Dearly Beloved still mows the huge fenced backyard on his tractor; between mowings, Monty Beagle still romps through it, sniffing all the fascinating smells. Dearly takes the dog for his walks, picks up grandchildren from school or day care as required, runs errands in his pickup truck (even helps friends move furniture), visits the doctor, and does the dinner dishes. He doesn’t care that we can’t move to Gatsby: he hates being around old people. At the moment, two of our grandchildren live around the corner with their parents, so he likes that, and there are plenty of children and younger people living on our street.

The thing is, although we’re elderly, we’re far from decrepit. I’ve just undertaken a rigorous 10-week training course at my gym, and from age 65 to 71 I took care of two grandchildren, full time, from infancy through toddlerhood.

As for moi, I’m resigned to the fact that we won’t be able to afford Gatsby Woods and that I will Still Have to Cook. Not cooking dinner was the aspect of moving there that delighted me the most, because after 50 years in the kitchen I’m really, really tired of it.

However, there’s an organization called Blue Apron (https://www.blueapron.com) that will deliver healthful gourmet meals to us, should that become necessary. Moreover, an organization in the next jurisdiction will give us rides to the doctor or wherever in exchange for useful services that we ourselves can provide (in my case editing, as that was my former job). Our grocery store has a home delivery service. A very good hospital is just down the road to provide care, and our health management organization is nearby. We’ve hired a gardener to mow the front yard and weed-whack front and back, and the new cleaning service charges the same amount for twice-monthly cleanings as the old one did for once-a-month cleanings.

But if we win the lottery, I’m moving to Gatsby Woods the next day, even if Dearly and the dog elect to stay!

Dearly Beloved in his uncluttered office

Dearly Beloved in his uncluttered office

  15 comments for “The Weirdness of Planning for Extreme Old Age

  1. bfitzinAR
    May 13, 2016 at 9:19 am

    {{{Diana}}} – if you win the lottery, hire a cook! Don’t have to uproot yourself just because you’re tired of cooking. :)

    • May 13, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Perhaps, bfitz! It’s not just the cooking. There’s also the matter of a smooth transition from independent living to assisted living to what is delicately termed “memory care.” It would be a huge burden to my children to have to see me through all those stages when they work full time and have young families.

      Sometimes, though, I think: “What if Princess Pink Cheeks does the teenage rebellion thing against her parents and wants to come live with me?” Here, at least, I’d have room for her.

  2. Geordie
    May 13, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Thanks so much for writing this Diana! The costs of senior living communities are mind boggling and scary, and I will have to start researching options for myself in the next few years.

    We moved my mother to a very nice assisted living place near my brother in Indianapolis in 2008, when I could no longer keep up with caring for her in her own townhouse near me. This was affiliated with United Presbyterian Church, although I don’t know if it made any difference, and although she only lived a year after we moved her there (she was 84 and not in good health – lupus, high blood pressure, heart issues, etc.), she seemed to like it very much once she got used to it. She had a VERY small apartment – I think maybe less than 500 sq ft, with a little kitchenette, and meals provided, laundry, etc – and she was paying I think $3200/month, with no buy in. She described the grounds to me as very nice, lots of walking paths, and a place for gardens for the residents, and there were lots of activities too.

    It would have been less if we’d paid a big buy in fee at the beginning – maybe $300,000, not sure how much it was – but my brother and I decided we’d wait to see how Mom liked it. And alas, it was the right decision, as she didn’t live there more than a year. It did sound like the kind of place I could be comfortable in when I hit my 80’s and feel like I need care – but I’m going to try to last in my own home until then, either where I am now or someplace smaller that I could move to when my big dog is gone (he’s 8 1/2 and I couldn’t think of moving him anywhere as long as he’s alive).

    Aging alone, as a single woman, is probably going to be a challenge – I can see now why people stay where things are familiar and they know their neighbors. My subdivision is very close to the grocery store, dentist, vet, all of that but still requires driving everywhere – this country is so behind Europe (deliberately, thanks auto and oil companies in the post war period) when it comes to public transportation, but maybe we’ll catch up a bit over the next decade.

    Lots of food for thought Diana, thanks again!

    • May 13, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks for reading it, Geordie! Yes, it is a problem for singles.

      Perhaps, if you move to a university town one day, there will be a village-to-village movement established there, and you’ll be less reliant on the ability to drive. Where we live, I could walk to the grocery store in 18 minutes. Of course, in high summer, the ice cream will have melted by the time I get home. :)

      • JanF
        May 14, 2016 at 8:57 am

        The idea of a university town is appealing because there is always something going on, they are usually car-less friendly places, and they are generally liberal. :) I think that housing costs though, are relatively high as you are competing with students, faculty, and people who can’t bear to leave after they graduate.

        For me, I have no interest in expending my post-retirement energy keeping a house maintained (and a car running). I see my own parents hanging onto their house because of its familiarity. I get that but they would be unable to stay there without help from my brothers, work that is, fortunately for them, shared by many hands. I have one child and would not want her to have to take care of an old lady hanging onto a house with a yard. Plus, I have moved so many times in my life that no house or area really holds all my memories such that I can’t bear to part with it.

        The biggest question for me is WHEN. When will be the best time to move to a new downsized living arrangement: if you wait too long, you don’t have the energy to pack and move. It certainly can’t happen while you still have a busy lifestyle, or in my case, a business to manage.

        There are no clear answers and no one-size-fits-all because there is no way to predict the future. I have a plan A and a plan B but when the time comes, I may choose something completely different!

  3. princesspat
    May 13, 2016 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience Diana. You have helped me arrive at our “age in place” plan. Just hope our health (and my knees) will see us through!

    • May 13, 2016 at 1:08 pm

      I hope so too, princesspat! Thanks for reading it.

      Two of the things I would have MOST hated leaving if we had actually moved were the wood-burning stoves (we love to watch the flames in the winter), and my new bamboo floors upstairs, put down only last spring. They are really beautiful.

  4. bfitzinAR
    May 13, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    While I have family here, I’m basically planning to “age in place” alone. I have to. Aside from about 1 year’s worth of my current pay in Cref, all I have is my Social Security. My kids can’t afford to support me. I’ve paid off the mortgage so my lodging is just taxes and insurance. I’ve got the solar panels so my electricity is just the maintenance fee to be attached to the grid. I’ve insulated the heck out of the house. If things get really tight I can shut off the gas – I’ll have a larger electric bill then for part of the year, but not as much as would have with gas + electric. I’ve replaced the tub in the bathroom with a walk-in shower. I have no idea how long I will remain in more or less good condition. I’ll be 65 in October and basically everybody in my family on either side who’s made it passed 85 lost either her sight or her marbles. Of course most of them didn’t make it passed 85. So. We shall see what we shall see. But barring a tree falling on me or something, I’d say I’m still pretty good for another 15 years anyway. :)

  5. May 13, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Bfitz, you appear to have done a great job of figuring things out and planning for your retirement! You are to be commended. Your plans sound excellent.

    What shall you do when you retire, other than relax and enjoy life? Is there a hobby or interest you’re going to take up when time permits?

    Take it from one who knows—there is nothing more wonderful than retirement! I’ve never been bored for a single second. Nor have I missed anything at all about my job: not the people, nor the ugly building, the office politics, not even the pay.

    It is blissful to be in control of one’s own time.

    • bfitzinAR
      May 14, 2016 at 4:28 pm

      I’m hoping to do volunteer work at the public library, closest elementary school, or both. The elementary school is close enough to walk to in nice weather. The library isn’t but if for whatever reason I couldn’t drive, as long as the University is open, I can get within walking distance on the shuttle (have to transfer, but that’s very doable), I will miss some of the people and the building I work in is the original university building built in 1873 (hope this link takes you there). I work on the 2nd floor in the SE corner suite.

      https://sp.yimg.com/ib/th?id=OIP.M703376f5c5d5114a185f377c73ca8dedo0&pid=15.1&rs=1&c=1&qlt=95&w=180&h=119#inline

      and the pay is about twice what my Social Security will be – but no way on the Goddesses’ green earth will I miss the office politics!

      • May 21, 2016 at 8:13 am

        That’s a nice-looking building! Although my family lived in Little Rock for four years my parents never owned a car, so we never did get to Fayetteville.

        “Sooooey, hogs!”

  6. JanF
    May 14, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Ha! “Gatsby Woods”!!

    Thank you for an enjoyable read and a thoughtful presentation of the choices facing, really, all of us at some point.

    As I mentioned above, I have been weighing options; considering pros and cons, thinking about timing. I do want to settle into whatever longer-term solution I choose while I am still healthy and can afford to expend the physical and mental energy to relocate (and can absorb the costs). For now, and for at least the next 6 years, I will be staying here and taking it one day at a time. I hope that by the time a decision needs to be made, the path will be clearly lit.

  7. 1864 House
    May 14, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Chez 1864 is not the ideal place to age in place. My ideal right now would be a tiny house in my child’s backyard, in a neighborhood where I could walk to essential services. Not sure that’s going to be possible.

    • JanF
      May 14, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      I thought about tiny houses while watching HGTV last night and wondered how suitable they would be when we were too old to climb ladders! Most of the sleeping spots are up in loft-like areas.

    • bfitzinAR
      May 14, 2016 at 4:34 pm

      If I get to the point where I cannot physically deal with living alone, my fallback plan (which thus far my older son is agreeable to) is to build a small (300 to 400 square feet) house in my back yard and give the house to my son and his wife to live in. We shall see if he/they still are agreeable to it should that come to pass.

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