Retirement communities: they're not your grandmother's nursing home

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This is the first in a series of articles intended to demystify the experience of living in a retirement community.

When I was 10 years old, I went Christmas caroling with a church group to a nursing home. The whole place seemed to be done up in various shades of brown - a sepia-toned photograph brought to life.

As I recall, the floor was covered in linoleum, worn through in places. The halls were dark and dank and smelled funny. The rooms were tiny and drab. The very building seemed dispirited. We sang our songs and left.

I went home and had nightmares.

If you have similar memories from many decades ago, I have good news for you. The retirement communities I've toured in the Prescott, Arizona area are as different from the place I remember from childhood as dining at a five-star restaurant is different from scavenging for food in a dumpster.

Yes, both eating experiences have to do with getting food - and both sets of retirement experiences have to do with having a place to live - but the similarities end there.

What can you expect from today's senior living communities?

My comments here are based on tours of Alta Vista, Good Samaritan, Granite Gate and Las Fuentes.

For one thing, the basics appear to be well covered. Three of the four are affiliates of national organizations that run retirement communities in as many as hundreds of locations across the U.S. (Alta Vista, on the other hand, is locally owned.)

They all understand very clearly that you want to have a pleasant, clean and safe place to live. You'd like choices for meals. You need a way to get laundry done. You need to get to a grocery store, a drug store, the post office and the doctor's office -- even if you don't plan to drive yourself. You want to be able to get beauty salon or barber services without leaving the site.

You want interesting things to do - and interesting people to do them with - even if you aren't up for organizing the activities or driving to get to them. You may want the ability to entertain guests even if you don't have space for them to stay with you.

You may want help with computers and internet access. Maybe you want to be able to Skype (make free video calls via computer) with your relatives even if you aren't sure how to set that service up.

Maybe you want to know that someone will keep an eye on you - not an intrusive eye, if you are living independently in your own apartment -- but just that someone will notice if you don't surface one day.

Above all, you want to be treated as the individual that you are - if you need something different from the service offerings already available, you want to know that you'll be taken seriously and that they'll help you get what you need.

In all four communities, the staff made a convincing case that they have these bases covered.

In all four communities, staff and residents uniformly greeted each other warmly in the hallways - and the staff almost always knew the names of every single resident we happened upon.

It sometimes took a while to make our way down a hall -- it was common for residents to stop staff members to share some point of interest about their activities or their families. And the staff always knew the backstory - what had happened previously with the resident's family member or vacation plans or whatever.

Retirement organizations like these make a point of referring to themselves as "communities" rather than as "facilities" or "developments" or anything else. At first, I thought that this emphasis was simply a marketing ploy. But after spending many hours on these campuses, I'm convinced that they're completely serious: they offer a chance to experience community.

Future columns will highlight some differences among the communities. But know that residents express satisfaction -- and often delight -- in all four. One resident of Las Fuentes concluded, in a fast-moving conversation with half a dozen residents, "I can't believe that in my old age, I'm having more fun than I've had my whole life!"

-- Next -- What do independent living apartments and meal plans look like?

Elizabeth L. Bewley is president and CEO of Pario Health Institute and the author of Killer Cure: Why Health Care Is the Second Leading Cause of Death in America and How to Ensure that It's Not Yours. To tell Elizabeth your story or to ask her a question, write to thegoodpatient@pariohealth.net.

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Elizabeth L. Bewley