When my parents grew too frail to live completely on their
own, our family considered the options.
Should we hire someone to provide daily
in-home care visits? Or should we look into
a retirement home?
At first, we didn’t want to consider the
second option. We were fuzzy about the
difference between retirement homes
(which are meant for relatively healthy
seniors) and nursing homes or long-term
care facilities (which are intended for those
who need extensive nursing attention).
Retirement homes sounded too institutional
for what my parents needed.
As we researched the matter, however,
we were pleasantly surprised at what retirement
homes had to offer. The facilities
were far nicer than we had expected. Most
important, the homes allowed seniors like
my parents, who continued to cherish
their privacy, to live in their own apartments.
The homes provided housekeeping,
meals in a common dining room, 24-hour
emergency assistance, and other support,
but otherwise left residents with the
independence they had always enjoyed.
We were pleased to find that retirement
homes really did feel like homes and not
While leaving the family home behind
is never easy, my parents eventually
decided that the retirement home option
would work for them. They moved into
one in Victoria three years ago.
While my Dad has since passed on, my
relatively hale 80-year-old mom continues
to live comfortably in her new home. She’s
made friends, finds the food quite tasty,
and appreciates not having to do her own
housekeeping. She likes the home’s many
activities, such as “sit-and-be-fit” classes,
and enjoys taking walks around the welltended
Her comfort has made her kids comfortable.
I live in Ontario and one sister
lives in California, but another sister lives
nearby in Victoria and drops by frequently
to visit my mom and have meals with her
in the home’s dining room. Management
and staff are friendly and attentive. Live-in
managers keep tabs on how each resident
is doing and will check in on an ailing
senior who unexpectedly misses a meal Common rooms are well-furnished
comfortable and attractive furniture. Art
decorates the well-lighted hallways. While
aging is no picnic and she misses my dad,
my mom is content with the lifestyle she
has found at her retirement home.
If you’re interested in a retirement
home for yourself or a relative, let me
offer you a few tips from my own family’s
experience as well as from the broader
experience of experts.
Assess what you really
homes provide different levels of support.
Mobile seniors like my mom require
only basic support such as common meals,
housekeeping and 24-hour emergency
response by live-in staff. Derek Mercey,
an industry consultant and vice-president
of Care Planning Partners and The Care
Guide Inc., which publishes guides to
retirement homes, estimates about 25%
of retirement home units are devoted to
providing this level of basic support.
Seniors who need a bit more support
should look for homes that provide help
with administering medications as well
as with essential physical activities such
as bathing and dressing. This set-up is
sometimes called “assisted living,” but
terminology varies widely from province
to province, so make sure you understand
the term used in your locale. Such facilities
make up about 75% of retirement home
units, according to Mercey’s figures.
If you want to make sure that you or
your parent can stay put as frailties grow,
you should consider homes that offer
“aging in place.” These homes allow you
to start off with modest levels of support
when you’re relatively healthy, but ratchet
up the support level as you need it. Just
remember that there are limits. If you need
intensive nursing support, you probably
require more help than a retirement home
can provide and will need to consider a
nursing home or long-term care facility.
Retirement homes can
be expensive. Count on paying $2,000
to $3,000 a month for a studio or small
one-bedroom unit for a single person.
That figure typically covers rent, meals,
housekeeping and basic support needs.
If you share your apartment with your
spouse, you will probably pay an extra
$500 to $700 a month. If all of that adds
up to simply too much money, small units
away from major cities can go for as little
as $1,500 a month, Mercey says. On the
other hand, if money is no object, you
can find luxurious one-bedroom units in
downtown Toronto or Vancouver for as
much as $8,000 a month.
But deals can be found While
retirement home may seem too expensive
for your budget, take heart. Don’t forget
that government pension plans, such as
CPP and OAS, will pay you up to $16,600
a year in retirement. Assuming you have
a paid-off home that you can sell, as well
as a small nest egg, you should be able to
raise another $300,000 or so — and since
you probably won’t need a nursing home
until your late 70s or later, you can be fairly
aggressive in drawing down that money.
Between the government pension plans
and your savings, you should be able to
generate a bit over $30,000 a year in income.
That should cover the cost of a small
apartment for an individual in a modest
If your income doesn’t stretch that far,
and you live in British Columbia or Alberta,
you can look into publicly supported
retirement homes. These homes will often
gear your rent to your income. Another option
is non-profit homes, which typically
cater to specific groups or communities.
But be warned: you may have to do some
research to find these homes since they
often do little beyond world-of-mouth to
Get your tax breaks
If you have a
marked restriction in some specific basic activities
like walking and dressing, be sure to
check out your eligibility for the Disability
Tax Credit, and the Medical Expense Tax
Credit for that portion of your retirement
home costs attributable to attendant care.
“I’ve found that these credits get missed
fairly frequently,” says Trisha MacLennan,
a financial planner in Burnaby, B.C. She
gives occasional talks on financial planning
at seniors homes and has found herself
peppered with questions about these
complex credits from seniors who hadn’t
realized they might be eligible.
better Most people don’t
move into a retirement home until they’re
in their late 70s or early 80s. Don’t leave
the decision until the last minute, however.
Otherwise an unexpected illness
or injury might force you into a quick
choice when you’re not ready. “It is a very
difficult thing to talk about,” says Esther
Goldstein, an expert on retirement homes
and author of The Comprehensive Guide to
Retirement Living. But, especially if you’re
dealing with aged parents, Goldstein
recommends you have the conversation
as early as possible.
Trust your eyes
You should take a
tour of any home that you’re considering.
Most allow you to have a meal on site and
talk to other residents. Many retirement
homes also let you arrange a trial stay
that can range from a few days to a few
weeks. Goldstein suggests you try to stay
at least a full week to see how the home
functions during weekends and other
Consider home care
homes aren’t always the best option.
Many seniors find that additional support
from family members or from paid
providers in the family home works better
for them. But be realistic about how much
help family members can provide. Who
will cover for you when you go on vacation?
If family members simply can’t do
the job, you may want to consider having
outside providers come to your home.
Some provinces will help arrange subsidized
in-home support, but governmental
assistance is often very limited.
Based on my own
family’s experience, I think it’s vital to
try to find a home that is reasonably near
at least one of your kids. Despite all the
support a retirement home can provide,
there’s no substitute for family members
in the vicinity.
Do your reading
Several directories list
retirement homes. For homes in Alberta,
B.C. and Ontario, check out www.the
careguide.com and The Care Guide Source
for Seniors, put out by Care Planning
Partners Inc. In Ontario, take a look at
www.senioropolis.com and Goldstein’s
Comprehensive Guide to Retirement Living
(she plans to expand her research to other
provinces later this year). For homes in
British Columbia, turn to www.seniorshousing.bc.ca, sponsored by the nonprofit
Seniors Services Society. In Alberta,
check out www.ascha.com, sponsored by
the Alberta Senior Citizens’ Housing Association,
an organization of retirement