retirement

Luxurious senior living communities

Buyer beware

These are valid points to consider, says Bunni Dybnis, a geriatric care manager in Los Angeles, who helps seniors identify housing options best suited to their physical and financial needs.

But she notes consumers who are considering a senior living community -- whatever the price point -- should investigate the financial health of the parent company before handing over their wallets.

"Some charge a fortune in upfront fees, but what if they go bankrupt?" she asks. "You really need to check to be sure this is a legitimate, viable company."

Consumers also need to beware of bait-and-switch tactics employed by some retirement communities.

Dybnis says she received two calls last month complaining about a faith-based CCRC that charged up to $700,000 in upfront fees for independent living suites. The CCRC didn't tell residents they would have to pay market rates for on-site staff and services if they later become sick and require skilled nursing.

"I've seen senior living situations work wonderfully, and I've seen disasters," she says. "Seniors sometimes think they're going to feel great and play golf forever, but they need to think through what happens when they get sick. They need to plan for the next step."

A community of peers

Not surprisingly, most residents in the high end of the market include former professionals -- doctors, lawyers, professors and brokers. Many still work part time or volunteer in their communities.

That's part of the appeal, says Douglas Thomas, outreach director for Atria on the Hudson, a top-tier senior living community in Ossining, N.Y. He says such communities bring together like-minded individuals who share common interests.

"One of our residents helped to build the Hubble space telescope, and another is a retired chief of cardiology for a local hospital who still works part time," he says, adding the community is designed to give residents the opportunity to pursue hobbies or learn a new skill.

To that end, it offers classes and programs designed to stimulate residents and help keep them in physical and mental shape. In addition, residents are encouraged to come and go as they wish using their own car.

One of 130 luxury assisted living properties operated by Atria Senior Living, Atria on the Hudson reopened in 2011 after a $25 million renovation. Monthly fees for all Atria properties range from $3,000 to $9,000, depending upon the level of care required. There are no large entry fees, as with many CCRCs, but all new residents incur a nonrefundable charge of one month's worth of rent.

The community emphasizes personal space, offering anytime dining at its on-site restaurant, cafe and grill, 10 acres of walking trails, a movie theater, pool, art studio, and cognitive learning center.

Check the details

Seniors who have the means to consider luxury senior living communities, however, should not be swayed by the wine list and crystal chandeliers, says Falldine of Edgemere.

"In this market, they call themselves luxury if they offer chef-prepared meals and fresh flowers, but whether it's independent living, assisted living or skilled nursing, it really comes down to services. How beautiful the building is wears off quickly."

Are the personnel qualified? Are menus designed for the senior palate? How are the programs? Are physical, speech and occupational therapy services available when needed?

"Are they cutting-edge in finding new ways to stimulate residents and give them the best opportunities for a high-quality life as they age?" says Falldine.

While sumptuous surroundings may be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, look at the financials of a prospective senior living community as well as its mission. "Primarily we're trying to create an environment that leads to successful aging," says Falldine.

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