A two-day excursion to New Hampshire, at the peak of fall foliage season, should be a treat. So how come I cried all the way from Manhattan to Hanover?
I was facing the future. And I was scared.
I was on that bus to New Hampshire to make an exploratory visit to a continuing care retirement community. I’d written about the place as a newspaper reporter almost a decade ago, and I remember finding it impressive.
But that was then and this is now. Then, I was a disinterested journalist shielded by a notebook. Now, I was a woman of a certain age, fearful of growing old and dying alone. It had taken every ounce of my courage to make this trip; visiting the community — even just to check it out as a possible, distant option — meant acknowledging that I wouldn’t be able to live on my own forever. It was the responsible thing to do. I sure didn’t like it.
As red maple trees flamed outside the bus window, soggy tissues accumulated beneath my feet.
Mine are fears that many share — or would, if they allowed themselves to think about it. Many of us in the baby boom generation have already shepherded our parents through old age or are now in the midst of that. It is backbreaking, heartbreaking — and expensive.
One in five of us are childless, so know we’re on our own, while those with children don’t want to be a burden. More of us are single or divorced than in generations past, but even those who are married will one day be widows or widowers.
Imagining life at 80 and beyond is not for the faint of heart. But leaving it to chance is asking for trouble. I moved from a spacious house to a cramped apartment three years ago, after Hurricane Sandy. Trees smashing on the roof and water swamping the basement was not something I wanted to live through again. Better to move when I could to a more elder-friendly environment — New York City, with public transportation and solicitous superintendents — than wait until I couldn’t do it myself.
On my next birthday, I’ll be 70 and so I’m now, again, on the highway to “what next?”
This was the next step.
The admissions department at Kendal at Hanover, 2.5 miles north of Dartmouth College, billed it as a “Try It, You’ll Like It” visit. Here’s what I knew about the place: It only accepted new residents who could live independently, but if they became disabled as they aged, they could stay there, moving through a continuum of care — including an on-site nursing home and dementia care facility — at no extra charge. The waiting list, depending on the choice of accommodations, was two to 10 years. A deposit of $1,500 was required, but $1,000 would be refunded if you changed your mind.
So signing up was a $500 insurance policy. If I chose a one-story, two-bedroom cottage with a private garden, I’d be 79 before one became available. Even then I could defer without losing my place on line. A no-brainer, said my friends and my financial advisor. A no-brainer, I knew intellectually, once I’d sampled the life there and crunched the numbers.
So why was I crying?
Assuming 10 years on the waiting list, I’d be a year older than the average resident at the time of entry, which is 78. Experts agree that’s the “sweet spot” for relocation to a retirement community, both because good health is often a requirement for admission and because one can still enjoy the amenities. Here, they include an indoor pool; hiking trails and bike paths; a yoga studio; and soon a dock and kayak launch at a bend in the Connecticut River framed by mountains.
Imagining life at 80 and beyond is not for the faint of heart. But leaving it to chance is asking for trouble.
The average age among the roughly 400 residents is 84, with 74 residents over 90. The 13 deaths in the last five months, the most in any comparable period, suggests that turnover will gradually usher in a younger population.
I’m not proud to say that pleases me. In the last years of my mother’s life, feigning equanimity, I learned to fold a walker and put it in the car, push her uphill in a manual wheelchair, and charge the battery in a motorized one. Recalling those accoutrements of her decline, even 13 years later, brings a shiver. As does her ultimate destination: a skilled nursing facility, where only two strong men and a Hoyer lift could raise her paralyzed body from bed.
That’s why I’m here.
There has to be a better way, I confide to Polly Ellerbe, a retired chemist and — at 66 — the youngest resident at Kendal at Hanover. She moved in more than a year ago and said one of her early worries was sharing the dining room, library, and the like with so many disabled people. Gradually, she said, she came to see that these “instruments of disability were actually instruments of independence.”
I’m not there yet, and so I focus on the long waiting list as I tour my residential options.
I know I’m lucky to be able to contemplate a place like this, where entry fees range from $147,536 (for a studio) to $510,483 (for a three-bedroom apartment), much of it tax-deductible because it’s considered a medical expense. On top of that, monthly costs range from $2,888 to $5,419. Included is one meal a day, utilities, transportation, and on-site medical care coordinated by the nearby Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
One advantage that many baby boomers have in making future decisions for themselves is familiarity with the astonishing costs of their parents’ care — and the emotional upheaval and physical deterioration that each move causes.
My mother, for example, in the last eight years of her life, lived in an independent living community in Florida, an assisted living community in the suburbs of New York, and finally at a nursing home. The first cost about $2,000 a month, the second about $3,000, and the third a whopping $14,000. In all, my mother’s care cost more than $1 million before, impoverished, she wound up on Medicaid. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows a continuing care retirement community would have cost less than half that. And there is no price tag on how much it would have improved her quality of life.
Too many families don’t have this type of option — or any option, beyond what Medicaid will cover. I have been fortunate to build a nest egg that gave me choices. This retirement community seems like a good choice.
The question is, can I steel myself to make it?
I keep looking for something disqualifying. Can I eat in my room if I want privacy? Yup. Can I have a dog? Yup, and I’ll be encouraged to replace him when he dies. Can I get my hands dirty gardening? Yup, either at my own cottage or a personal plot in a community garden. Can I drive? Yup, and free parking will allow me to replace the car I couldn’t afford when I moved to Manhattan, where garage space is exorbitant.
You even get to pick new paint colors and floor tiles when you move into an apartment. And for bigger renovations, you can turn to other residents. When Polly Ellerbe needed bookshelves, for instance, she hired a group of men who regularly use the community woodshop. She paid them $12 an hour — which the amateur carpenters then donated to a fund for residents who fall on hard times.
Again, I wonder why I’m crying.
Once I’m home, I reach out to a former colleague, a few years my senior but not by much. Three years ago, after a thankfully minor stroke, she moved to a similar community in rural Pennsylvania. At first she was homesick and miserable, felt like a pathetic old lady before her time.
And now, I asked her?
She said she was sure she would live a longer and healthier life because of all the things she didn’t have to do for herself. She said she had made friends and had no second thoughts about her decision.
She said she didn’t understand how scared she was until she felt safe.