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It's Your Move (Good Time's Family Care Solutions special issue)

Retirement living has come a long way, with new options appearing every year. Here is what to look for – and what to avoid.

Story is by Gabrielle Bauer and is from Good Time’s Family Care Solutions special issue.

When Gina Da Costa turned 50, she thought she'd found the house of her dreams: four bedrooms, formal living and dining rooms, a family room and a beautiful, sloped lawn. Less than two years later, Da Costa found herself moving again – this time to a high-rise condominium at the other end of Toronto. What happened in those two years? Stairs, for one thing. Da Costa, who has arthritis, found that her joints couldn’t handle the daily treks up and down the two flights of stairs in her home. What’s more, "cleaning such a big house was not my idea of fun," she says. "I work full-time, and I found that all my weekends were devoted to maintaining the house." Da Costa’s story can serve as a cautionary tale to all older Canadians contemplating a move. In mid-life or beyond, it’s more important than ever to think ahead, says Reuben Segelbaum, vice-president of operations for RetirementHomes.com, a North-America-wide listing service. "You may now be at stage X in your life, but you have to project to stage Y and Z and ask yourself how your living arrangements will work for you at those stages," he explains. One of Segelbaum’s clients, for example, anticipated a happy retirement in Florida. "Now that his health is deteriorating," says Segelbaum, "he finds himself wanting to return to Canada to be close to his family." Like Da Costa, many Canadians ultimately decide that smaller is better. The most recent (2007) Royal Bank of Canada’s 14th Annual Homeownership Survey shows that among Canadian homeowners planning to purchase a home in the next two years, 33 percent will be looking for smaller homes – compared with 20 percent in 2006 and 19 percent in 2002. Why smaller? A 2006 Royal LePage survey may provide a clue. Among the respondents over 50 who planned to move into a smaller home, 86 percent intended to use the equity from the sale of their home to support retirement, 42 percent envisioned giving the equity to their children, while seven percent set their sights on a recreational property. Many respondents (48 percent) also feared being chained to a home and unable to travel. With more than one million Canadians on the long side of 50, builders and real estate companies are doubling their efforts to cater to the midlife and retirement market. Royal LePage, for instance, has launched the Royal Le Page Seniors Real Estate Specialist Designation Program; these specialists help older Canadians navigate the transition to retirement living. Real estate developers have built mature-lifestyle complexes – many in the Greater Toronto Area – that would put some four-star hotels to shame. "It’s not like it was even 10 years ago," notes Segelbaum.

Decisions, decisions

So what’ll it be? Single dwelling, condominium complex, gated community or retirement home? Many people want to stay in some kind of house for as long as possible because they see it as a symbol of independence, says Gord White, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association. "Other people don’t want the responsibility of a house anymore," he notes. If you see yourself coming and going a lot, White suggests that you consider a townhouse or condominium complex geared to mature adults. Regardless of the type of setting you envision, Susan Thorning, CEO of the Ontario Community Services Association, suggests that you give top priority to – you guessed it – location. "Ideally, you want a living space that’s close to your doctor, close to grocery stores and other shops and close to public transportation if you use it," she says. "The last thing you want is to feel isolated or trapped." Thorning also suggests that you ask yourself: What is my primary lifestyle goal? Do I want to live around people of similar or different ages? Where do my children live? Do I want to make new friends? The issue of friends loomed large for Da Costa, who was moving to a completely new part of town. "If I didn’t already have a friend in this condo, I wouldn’t have moved here," she says. "My friend knows lots of people in the building and plans to introduce me to them." If you have any health limitations, you should also keep an eye out for structural features, such as elevators, guardrails and emergency bells. "Even if you’re in good health now, such features can allow you to continue living in your home if your health deteriorates down the line," notes Segelbaum.

The convenience factor

More and more living communities designed for mature adults are adopting this "changing needs" philosophy, allowing residents to stay put even as they require increasing support. Amica Mature Lifestyles Inc., a Canadian company that specializes in the management, design and development of luxury housing and services for mature adults, has built communities consisting of condominiums attached to a rental building that houses an array of amenities and support services. So far, there are 15 operating communities across Canada, with eight new rental buildings under development. "People can start out in a condo and then move to a rental unit if they need more support," says Susan Gerard, Amica’s vice-president of marketing and communications. Care to catch a movie? Just walk into the Home Theatre when the next show is playing. Want a break from cooking? The on-site restaurant awaits you. "People in the rental units can choose to eat two meals a day in the restaurant and have their unit cleaned every week," says Gerard. All told, it’s "a very social but unstructured atmosphere that allows people to use the services they want and opt out of the others, " she says. According to Gerard, the Amica lifestyle tends to attract two groups of people: empty nesters who "want to meet like-minded people and don’t want to get run over by kids on tricycles" and older people who don’t have the energy for cooking or housekeeping anymore. "They can even get their laundry done if they want." At what cost all this convenience? While prices obviously vary from community to community, Gerard says that a small 33- to 37-square-metre (350- to 400-square-foot) studio rental unit with a kitchenette might cost about $2,500 a month, including all designated meals, services and utilities except telephone and parking. A two-bedroom suite overlooking the water, meanwhile, might set you back more than $4,000 a month. Chartwell Seniors Housing REIT, another Canadian company, espouses the same "continuum of care" philosophy. As Phil McKenzie, Chartwell’s senior vice-president of marketing and public relations, puts it, "We want people to be able to age in place." The Scarlett Heights complex, a Chartwell Select community in Toronto’s West End, offers an "independent living package" and an "assisted living package," says McKenzie. Depending on your needs, support services could go as far as dressing, bathing and grooming. McKenzie says that Chartwell also prides itself on "putting the fun" into retirement living. On June 20 of this year, the company held a Senior Star competition – think Canadian Idol for the silver-haired set – with celebrity judges and 10 national finalists. If you balk at purchasing a condo but dread pouring all your money into rent, a "life lease" or "life equity" property may offer the perfect compromise. You buy a life lease on a unit – as opposed to buying the unit itself – and costs tend to be lower, explains Esther K.H. Goldstein, a Toronto retirement living consultant and author of A Comprehensive Guide to Retirement Living in Ontario (10th-anniversary edition, 2007). A relatively new housing option, life-lease units generally connect with other seniors’ resources and support services, which you can purchase at a small additional cost. If you decide to terminate the life-lease agreement, says Goldstein, "you receive equity based on the market value of the leasehold."

If you need a hand…

Regardless of where you choose to live, you may qualify for home care that allows you to stay put for many years to come. Through its 14 Community Care Access Centres (CCACs), the province of Ontario provides services ranging from home nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and nutritional assistance to grooming and homemaking support, says Georgina White, director of policy and research at the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres, which oversees the individual centres. "We assess the need for specific services," she says. For people who qualify and have OHIP coverage, "the province underwrites 100 percent of the costs, up to a specified maximum." CCACs can also help you find a suitable retirement community. Home supply stores are also getting in on the act. Through its Independent Living Program, the Home Depot can help you remodel your space (think grab bars, ramps and adjustable cabinets) to improve accessibility and ease of use. With all these supports in place, chances are you won’t need to consider moving to a traditional nursing home until the distant future. "Many people still equate retirement living with nursing homes," says Gerard, "but the paradigm has changed. It’s all about freedom and choice."

*Name has been changed.
Five questions to help you plan the move:

Planning the big move to a smaller house or retirement community? To pave the way for a smooth transition, HELPS (Household & Estate Living Planning Services) answers five basic questions:

  1. When do I want to move? Allow yourself at least six to eight weeks to plan your move.
  2. What do I want in my new home? Keep in mind that large, bulky pieces are not always suitable; you’ll want to be comfortable but not crowded.
  3. Where will I place all my furnishings? To help you determine what will and won’t fit, obtain a floor plan of your new home or suite.
  4. What should I do with everything I can’t take with me? Divide surplus items into those you want to give to family members or friends, those you wish to sell and those you wish to donate or discard.
  5. How do I plan on moving? Tackle and pack up one room at a time, before starting on another area. Hang your pictures and mirrors as soon as possible after your move.

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is offered for general informational and educational purposes only. Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily Senioropolis.com. In no way are any of the materials presented meant to be a substitute for professional advice nor should it be construed as such.  Senioropolis Inc. has endeavoured to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the information contained on this website. However, neither it nor the administrator of the site assumes liability whatsoever for any errors or omissions, nor guarantees the accuracy, of the information herein.

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