Senior Living Game Plan: How to Avoid Choosing in a Crisis

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Americans can out-plan just about anyone when we set our minds to it. In fact, NASA plans to land an astronaut on Mars in about 15 years, and preparations are already well under way. Food, fuel, and mental stimulation: Everything is being planned in meticulous detail for the 140-million-mile journey through space.

The general population, though, has proven less enthusiastic than our rocket scientists when it comes to peering ahead into the future. In fact, one in three people do not have any retirement money set aside. More than half don't have a will. Needless to say, few people give early thought to their future housing needs before it’s time to make an important decision.

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That's a critical error, the kind of mistake that would botch a space mission before it ever left the ground. When people don't plan for senior living, decisions get made in a hurry, usually after one’s physical or mental health takes a turn for the worse. Families go into crisis mode and make choices without adequate forethought or insight.

Prepare Ahead of Time

Rather than seeming like a chore to tame, early planning gives a family a stress-free opportunity to make decisions around an adult's living situation. Adult children get a chance to learn about mom or dad's lifestyle, interests, passions, and concerns. The older adult in turn gets to explore options thoughtfully, without the pressure of a discharge deadline or some other artificial timeline hanging over their heads.

This planning phase can be a moment of enrichment for all involved, as well as a golden opportunity to organize and prioritize, all with an eye toward setting up a loved one for the best possible housing experience going forward. Not all senior living options are the same: It's a broad and varied market with the possibility of meeting a wide array of personal needs. However, finding the right fit takes care and forethought.

Older adults and their families will want to consider a range of factors when planning in advance for senior housing alternatives. Here are some of the biggest priorities that take some time and planning.

What Can You Afford?

Finances are, of course, a primary consideration. As with any housing choice, the conversation may well begin with the question: How much can I afford? This will be a calculation encompassing retirement savings, the sale of a home, and other sources of income. Online calculators and other services, including the skills of a CPA or other financial professional, can help a family get a handle on the numbers.

The flip side of that coin: How much does it cost? It pays to do one's homework here, as the cost of senior housing is a widely variable factor. Different types of housing—assisted living, nursing home, memory care—have different financial models. Costs may vary even among similar-seeming communities. Staying at home and receiving in-home care isn’t necessarily less expensive either. It pays to do research while you are planning ahead.

Type of Community

Community is a major consideration as well. A vibrant, engaged community, one where residents have ample opportunities to express themselves, discover new interests, and engage with others, is ideal. Not all senior housing options are cast in this mold. 

A little research will uncover a big difference between nursing homes and assisted living, for example. Assisted living residents generally enjoy a far higher level of autonomy; they can engage in not just the basic functions of daily living, but also a wide range of other activities. Even within assisted living though, not all communities are the same. Many of these communities sell out and only accept reservations, so early planning is essential for those seeking a vibrant, energetic environment for Mom or Dad.

Location, Location, Location

You must consider location as well, and here, early planning is key again. If parents are going to relocate to be closer to their children, a head start helps make that complex transition go smoothly. Older adults also may want housing close to a particular medical provider or near cities or sites of particular personal interest. Either way, if a move is in the cards, early planning helps make the adjustment easier because you can ensure a location will be available near you.

Making a Rushed Decision

Those who wait to consider these questions until the last minute are often put in an uncomfortable situation. When families wait until a crisis arises to make their senior housing choices, emotions can get in the way and it can be difficult to make the right choice.

A hurried decision can lead to financial mistakes. Older adults find their choices constrained by the lack of advance planning, especially if they are unaware of the costs associated with housing. Those who don't know the financial side typically have difficulty allocating their resources appropriately. Putting off the “money conversation” as uncomfortable or inconvenient inevitably leads to fewer options down the road. 

Likewise, those who don't think through the different housing types may find themselves unprepared to address the complex senior living landscape. As a result, a rushed choice may land Mom in a community that simply doesn't fit—a place that does not respond to her lifestyle needs, her personality, her intentions. Forethought helps ensure a fit between the individual and the place they will be calling home.

As in most major life decisions, a hurried choice typically yields lukewarm results at best.

Planning Early Is Crucial

Finances, housing type, and location: These three key considerations inform the choice of senior housing, and the sooner you and your loved ones begin exploring the options, the better. Those who fail to act, who end up making the call while standing on one foot, often regret not having acted sooner. Early planning is more than just smart: It's essential for those who wish to take what some find to be a trying task and turn it into a moment of joyful exploration, an enriching experience for all involved.

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