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Timing the move: should you live in a retirement community for your own health

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Mabel walks around the block in my neighborhood every day.  Her garden used to be a tribute to sustainable living and so she stops to chat with the neighbors about gardening if she finds them out in the yard.  Mabel’s always been an independent soul with a fierce determination.  She once stopped an abusive ex-husband from coming around by nailing a live snake to her doorframe.  That was perhaps 50 or 60 years ago and now Mabel has Alzheimer’s and her independent spirit means that she continues to live in her little house with little interference from others.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association about one in seven people with Alzheimer’s lives alone just like Mabel.

Americans are an independent lot so it shouldn’t be surprising that we tend to live alone even when we need help with performing activities of daily living.  The Administration on Aging estimates that about 30 percent of older adults live alone, almost half of women over the age of 75 and about a third of centenarians live alone.  Unfortunately not everyone is like Mabel who can count on family members and neighbors to keep her safe and provide her with company.  A 2013 study found that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a greater risk of dying and that of the two isolation was the more important.

Will Mabel someday move into a different housing situation?  It’s possible that her daughter or grandson might choose to move in with Mabel if she continues to be physically healthy but her cognitive function continues to decline.  Despite the frequent walks she takes she could at some point suffer physical ailments as well.  But, with so many people looking out for Mabel she’s in a unique position to continue to live alone if it remains a healthy choice for her.  Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have the same support system and their homes and neighborhood’s become a serious and even deadly threat.  For those people, moving to a retirement community earlier rather than later should be on their agenda.

It’s common sense that if someone you love is having trouble with medication management issues, poor eyesight, social isolation, poor nutrition or malnutrition, or safety hazards, it may be time to consider an alternative to their continued living alone.  But, what many people don’t consider is that moving anywhere after your health degrades may be too little, too late.  You want to have the time when you are still healthy to be able to learn and become familiar with the new people, neighborhood and home before you experience a downturn in your health.  In addition, your environment often causes many of the health issues people suffer from when they age, whether it’s poorer quality health because medications aren’t taken correctly, poor nutrition, a fall in an unsafe house or just the absence of company as shown in the study I referenced above.   Moving may actually improve your health once you leave an unsafe situation.  Retirement communities provides older adults a good option for expanding social networks and staying actively engaged.

A lot of people create barriers to the idea of moving into any community specifically for seniors when it becomes apparent that living on their own is no longer safe or healthy but the benefit to such a move is that those kinds of communities offer a wide range of social activities while providing mostly unobtrusive health monitoring and medication management.  In addition, as we age our social networks like old co-workers and friends begin to shrink as those people move, become ill or die and retirement communities provide your loved one someone to eat a meal or attend an activity with.  And while living alone benefits many people, it also has costs to others.  Mabel’s daughter isn’t complaining about driving across town to check on her mother each day but like many caregivers she provides unpaid help to allow her mother to remain at home.

If you’re concerned about the cost of paying for assisted living or some other level of care, Veteran Benefits and Medicaid can often provide assistance if an individual needs help with activities of daily living.

More to read:

11 ways to ease loneliness

Choosing housing that allows you to remain independent

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