by Kathy A. Megyeri

Many of us in our 70s and 80s are exploring community living options to prepare for potential health issues or changes further down the line. As my husband and I pack to move to Knollwood in Washington, D.C., I would like to share some advice from others who’ve already gone through this process; established a new lifestyle, a new setting, and a new community for the remainder of their years.

I was particularly fortunate that my husband put us on the waiting list for Knollwood back in the late 1980s when he was a young second lieutenant. We had no children, were familiar with the property, and knew that we wanted to remain in the D.C. area where we both had spent most of our lives.

The Army Distaff Hall (as Knollwood was first known) was established by Mamie Eisenhower for military widows. Eventually they allowed men as well, and expanded beyond a familial military connection, becoming more reflective of the larger Washington, D.C. population.

Just recently, a unit with a balcony became available, and considering we both had (successful) back surgeries for spinal stenosis, we made the decision to move. In most of our friends’ cases, they move to be closer to their children, but in many cases adult children may relocate for a job or become occupied with childcare and other responsibilities. Thus, many older adults are left to find their own communities for support and relationships, which can become difficult when health issues surface.

The point here is to plan ahead; look around and talk to others who have made such a decision; examine your financial situation; consider the location and amenities offered; speak to those already living in such communities; and get on a waiting list while your needs are still what they are. And, hopefully, you’ve considered long-term care insurance before you really need it.

My friend Carol, a Washington, D.C.-career Foreign Service worker, who after much research, made her community selection. She spent the better part of a year downsizing her antique-filled house.

As a favor to those of us beginning such a life adjustment, she and her colleagues wrote up a helpful checklist:

  1. Compare costs between community living and staying in your house under “worst-case scenarios.” This may include acquiring a caregiver (if adult children are not available) to manage your care and associated home maintenance costs.
  2. Is your chosen location near public transportation? Is it located near a variety of shopping and services like grocery stores, doctors’ offices and recreational activities?
  3. What transportation options exist for people who don’t drive or may give up driving in the future?
  4. What renovations are done for incoming residents? What choices/restrictions are there for appliances, flooring and window treatments?
  5. Is there a group rate for basic TV and internet services? Or is this cost included?
  6. Are you assigned a garage or personal parking space? Is there sufficient/convenient guest parking?
  7. How many apartment homes are available for independent living residents? How many are available for assisted living residents? How many rooms are available for nursing care residents? Are they private?
  8. Does the community have a skilled nursing license (hint… ask to see the community’s name on the license…)?
  9. What services and amenities are offered for independent living residents?
  10. What meals are available and included? What are the dining hours? What are the dining options (dining room, cafe, etc.)? What are the prices for guests?
  11. Are there guest rooms onsite? If so, is pricing comparable to local hotels?
  12. Are there exercise classes, and if so, are they included? How frequently are they offered? Are there private exercise sessions available and what is the fee?
  13. Are religious services available? Which religions? Is there an on-site spiritual counselor or social worker?
  14. How frequently is housekeeping provided? Must one use housekeepers provided by the community? Which services do they provide (e.g., can they dust your knick knacks)?
  15. What maintenance services are provided?
  16. What security measures are in place (e.g., emergency call system)? What are the hours kept by security staff?
  17. Are there plans for community expansion? If so, where on the property?
  18. Are there specific right-to-die policies that differ from local laws?
  19. To what extent do residents create, plan or execute their own activities? This may include selecting speakers, outside entertainment, lectures and movies, or arranging trips to museums, shopping and concerts.
  20. What entertainment occurs onsite? Are there cultural exchanges, art classes, speakers, men’s groups, etc.? Are there any amenities run by residents? Which social activities are available? This may include reading and writing groups, wine parties, clubs, exercise or swimming classes.
  21. What is the pet policy?
  22. Is there an ATM onsite? Are postal/package services available close by?
  23. What are the monthly fees and what services/features do they cover? How has it increased over the past few years? What would a yearly commitment look like?
  24. How experienced are the staff and what requirements must they meet to work here? How long do most stay? How many are employed and in which capacities?
  25. Which amenities are located onsite (e.g. salons or barber shops)?
  26. What is it about this community that residents like best?
  27. What are residents’ most frequent complaints?
  28. May I speak to other residents and talk privately with them about my questions?
  29. Is there a requirement for a long-term insurance policy?

Granted, there are likely other questions you may have, but this will depend on the communities you are looking at. When I got the chance to speak to a few women about what they loved at Knollwood, they unanimously answered that it was the resident-orchestrated birthday parties held each month. And, they shared how reassuring they found their support systems there to be. One even said “just think, if you don’t want to, you never have to cook another meal.”

Residents love having friends, family and grandchildren visit. They also love their outings, but best of all, they have made new friends, who, like them, are looking forward to a wonderful next chapter of life well lived.