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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Great article – it would be wonderful to have a list of similar establishments around the country or guidance on how to search for them. Thanks!!

    • Fantastic article Jane! Congrats on taking this first, hard step- you are choosing your change. I encourage people to look at multiple CCRCs because it is a big and important decision. I would be honored if you looked at RiverWoods, right down the road in Exeter, NH. For you or your readers, we also have created a free workbook that helps you understand the three types of CCRCs , the contract differences, and how to choose. We are at http://www.riverwoodsrc.org.

  • Just want to clarify that you don’t get those hefty entry fees back, unlike some other facilities(but monthly fees are lower). Kendal is full of interesting people and in a beautiful location. I cannot imagine crying on the way to visit, but then, the people I know don’t have this kind of option.

  • don,t get old.
    keep busy, hang around people younger
    atleast a decade.
    stay in you primary home as along as possible
    hope you have enough $ for personal services
    reverse mortgage your home as much as possible
    leave some $ for your kids who accepted responsibility
    sing , dance the days, nights away
    remember the past, enjoy the present.
    celebrate till god decides it your time

  • I am sorry you are crying. We visited Kendal at Hanover at age 60 and moved in 9 years later. We love everything about Kendal and moved early to take advantage of the many opportunities at Kendal and the Upper Valley. I have a garden plot, a person art table in the studio, volunteer in the woodshop, and a spot for my guitars in the music room. I have learned that people in their 90’s are fascinating and have had rich experiences that they share. We are young enough to also be active in the larger community. Life is good. My wife and I can’t understand why more people don’t realize the advantages of a community like this.

  • It’s funny. I have no fears or sadness. I am a year younger than you, childless, married (my husband is 74) and when my spouse dies I will live off just social security, a pension of only a few hundred dollars a month and, hopefully, the value of my house. I suffered a disability for many years but never applied for aid. We are also responsible for the care of many cats and so we are making a pet trust for them. We couldn’t afford a long term care policy for a number of compelling reasons. We have few family members and are not close to them physically nor emotionally. All that said, I simply don’t fear the future – at all. I feel as if I will make the right choices as things happen. (I know: People will say that I might not have “choices”. I feel I will. And I am not simply leaving things up to the fates. But my choices will be humble. I could never afford to do what you are doing and admire you for being able to do it. ) My life has been so happy thus far and so I feel good about the future. Reckless? I don’t think so. I can put up with a lot, I guess and just have an optimistic view of things. I married late in life and yet I knew I would find a wonderful spouse, and I did. Maybe a lot of this has to do with hope and expectation. I could find my prediction to be wrong, personally, but I think so much has to do with attitude. I also think that people die sort of as they lived..I hope to die peacefully and in gratitude for a having had a happy life especially in my later years.

    • The “nursing home” aspect of a CCRC is important. Facilities that are in the Medicare system are listed with their overall rating, recent health inspections, staffing and “quality measures”. After you enter the area code, or city and state, or just the state, you’ll get another page with the list. In the column on the right side of that page, you can modify the search further by checking the box for “Within a Continuing Care Retirement Community”, among other selections. https://www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare/search.html?

  • I’m 74 and still very well and active. But, I do relate and think about every concern you have. I too am single with no children. I did save as much as I could while I was employed so am ok as long as I stay well. But, it is scary and I cry often too.
    Loved you article! Thank you!
    Sue Hurwitz

  • People should not be so fearfully about dying. People who have had near death experiences know that it is not something to fear.

  • I too seriously considered Kendal — until it occurred to me that it would be like going to boarding school all over again, except this time the only way to graduate would be to die. Instead, I signed up for Beacon Hill Village, which provides all the services that make it possible to age in place.

  • Thank you for this perspective. I have cared for a father a sister and now my 90 year old mother. Getting old isn’t for sissy ‘s for sure

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