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How to Plan For Aging Parents

Jul 11, 2008
Alternatives to Pricey Retirement Homes

It happens to everyone with parents. One day, it will be time to take care of those who raised you. Retirement homes have long been the choice for busy families that don't have the time or the room to care for their folks. But there are other options. If you plan ahead, you hook your mom and dad up with an agreeable living situation that will make you happy, them happy, and will not break your budget.

I recently quit my job at a retirement home. By all appearances, it was a very nice retirement home. The first thing you saw when you walked in was a large elegant dining room, a winding staircase, and a grand piano in the middle of a sky-lit atrium. The average age of residents was eighty five years old, and while it was considered "independent living" most of the residents were dependent. They depended on staff to prepare them three meals a day, they depended on the bus driver for transportation (since many had given up driving) and they even depended on an activity director to schedule ways for them to pass their time (that was my job). These services were selling points for the facility, and families were willing to pay an average of four thousand ($4,000) dollars a month so mom and dad could play bingo and bridge in a nicely furnished community. Because this facility was considered independent living, the rent did not cover health services.

In the year that I worked there, I got to know many of the residents. They confided in me. I learned that many of the seniors never really felt like it was their home or even a suitable replacement. Despite the extravagant landscaping, it was still institutionalized living. A lot of them hated the food. Some were even pretending to be happy just for their children. OK, some old folks are just cranky, and you can't please them no matter what. But regardless, I couldn't help the feeling that in many ways, retirement homes are completely unnecessary and even a waste of money.

In today's tight economy, it's time to be creative and resourceful when it comes to finding a home for Mom and Dad. Rather than committing your parents (or grandparents) to expensive retirement institutions, consider these housing alternatives.

Make room at home (Seriously.)

Up until the second half of the 20th century, this is how people lived! Multiple generations lived under one roof. Make room in the basement. Convert the garage into another bedroom. Or simply plan ahead now and buy a bigger house than you need. Ever notice how big houses were in the 19th century? That's because families actually lived together. They were much more unified than they are today. In the old days, it was not unusual to have granny answer the door in her curlers. In fact, in many households, grandparents had an important and useful role in the family. I'm not sure what changed, but somehow Americans became embarrassed by their elderly relatives. It's time be proud of our families again --no matter how senile they may be!

Of course having your parents live with you works extremely well if you actually get along with them. I lucked out having really cool folks. But it can be done even if you have differences. Just make sure you have enough space for privacy. My parents are not even retired yet, but my husband and I have decided that our next house will be designed to accommodate them when the time comes. We will have an in-law suite (on the first floor of course) or a separate cottage on our property. It's important to make sure the space is accessible with walkers and wheelchairs. In my opinion, it's never too early to consider a house with extra space for aging relatives. You can always make use of the space in the meantime by renting it out, hosting an exchange student, or housing your teenage kids.

Buy the house next door (Hire home health care services as needed.)

Keep property in the family. On a business trip in Greece, I made friends with a local colleague. Before going out to dinner, she invited me to her brand new condo to meet her family. Her family lived in separate condos, but literally owned the whole building. Her great grand parents lived in the condo on the first floor, her grand parents lived on the second floor, her parents lived on the third floor and she had just gotten the deed to the fourth floor where her and her new husband lived. Why pay over four thousand ($4,000) dollars a month on a small apartment in a retirement home, when you can purchase the house next door (or the apartment below you?) Most mortgage payments are considerably cheaper than rent at a retirement community and plus your money goes toward an investment. Not to mention the sense of true independence this will provide your parents. Old people like to have their own things too.

Understandably, some seniors need special care. In this case you can hire a home health service! There are enough services out there for you to choose from a la carte. Many private health services provide drivers, nurses, and housekeepers as needed. Decide what services you and your parents really need to spend money on and employ a private company. There are many such services. You can find them online or just go to your nearest "independent living" retirement home and look through the multitude of home health care brochures. Otherwise, if your parents are close enough, you can provide meals for them and take them shopping. Of course there may be a time when seniors require full-time nursing care for serious illnesses, but in the meantime, why pay for three meals a day at Sleepy Hollow Retirement when you can keep real estate in the family?

Encourage your parents to move to a big city. (Especially a city you would want to visit!)

For the more active retirees, there are options for adventure. If you have the kind of parents that can't stand to be still, you may consider packing them up and sending them off. The complaint I heard to most when working in a retirement home was how much the residents missed their cars. They hated giving up their wheels and missed being able to go wherever they want when they want. Subsequently, there is an increasing trend of seniors moving to large cities so they can take advantage of public transportation. While many people have sprawled out to the suburbs, it makes sense for driving impaired seniors to choose an urban setting. living in the heart of a metropolitan area means you don't need a car, plus there are many things to do and see.

Send your parents to college.

If your parents have an active mind, think about getting them a dorm on a college campus. That's right, some colleges are now catering to seniors and even offering free classes and discounts on amenities such as golf and tennis. Who needs bingo night when you can take a French class, go to a football game, or see a theatre performance? Research has shown that mental activity may prevent dementia. So, for those seniors considering an "institutional lifestyle," they may as well choose a college campus over a retirement home. The cost of senior dorms vary. Depending on the housing package, some dorms may be just as expensive as retirement homes. But hey, if you plan on forking out rent for a home, renting a room on a lively college campus sure beats the activity department of any retirement home.

Help your parents escape the country.

Retiring abroad may be an appealing choice for seniors who are looking to stretch their dollars. If they insist on enlisting in a retirement community, look at places like Mexico. In fact, many retirement homes in Mexico cater to the American market. One major pitfall of course, is that you won't get to see them as often. But look at it this way, you'd have a cool place to visit. A few years ago, a lady from England made news for choosing to live out her golden years on a cruise ship. 86-year-old Bea Muller of Florida was aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2000 when her husband died. She didn't want to move back home to live alone and she didn't want to live in a retirement home. So, she decided to sell everything and book herself for a world cruise one year at a time. In her case, with all the amenities, it actually worked out cheaper than assisted living.

Of course there may be that rare instance where your parents insist on living in a retirement home. They may actually want to have a 400 square foot apartment, collect "funny money," endure Elvis impersonators, and rely on a one-size-fits all activity calendar for fun. But this is doubtful. Most people want to remain as independent as possible for as long as they can. Most people want to be an active member of a family or community. No matter how old and senile, there are certainly plenty of options for giving them that opportunity outside a cookie-cutter retirement home.
About the Author
April Norhanian is the editor of http://www.halfpastnine.com Life and Leisure in the Metro Atlanta Suburbs.
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