How to Choose a Retirement Community

How to Choose a Retirement Community

Retirement communities are housing developments designed around meeting the needs of senior citizens who desire staff services, but who are functional enough to live independently. For this reason, such communities are also called Independent Living Communities.

Retirement living communities are comprised of individual residential units, which may be houses, condominiums, townhomes, or apartments, generally located near large cities to provide easy access to stores and medical facilities.

Some retirement communities resemble self-contained townships, by providing residents with many of the same types of public facilities that are usually in large cities. Because independent living communities are so varied in scope and organization, it’s important to know how to find the right one for you.

In order to do so, you’ll need to consider many factors. Here are some guidelines to help with the selection process:

First Impression

A first impression can tell you a lot about the residence and what you’ll feel like if you live there. When you first arrive at the residence for a tour, make sure to pay attention to your initial feelings and thoughts. To help organize yourself, take stock with the following questions:

  • Do you like the facility’s location and outward appear­ance?
  • Is the facility convenient for frequent visits by family and friends?
  • Is the facility near a shopping and entertainment complex?
  • Is a medical complex easily accessible?
  • Is public transportation available/accessible?
  • Are you welcomed with a warm greeting from the staff?
  • Does the staff address residents by their names and interact with them during your tour?
  • Do you notice the residents socializing with each other and do they appear content?
  • Can you talk with residents about how they like living there and about the staff?
  • Is the staff appropriately dressed, friendly, and outgo­ing?
  • Do the staff members treat each other professionally?
  • Are visits with the residents encouraged and welcome at any time?
  • What percentage of the apartments are rented and occupied?
  • Is there a waiting list? If so, how long do they estimate it will be for a unit to become available?

Living Area and Accommodations

The most important aspect of the residence is, of course, the living area because that’s where you’ll be spending most of your time. Take a look at everything – not just the room where you will be living. Take note of the hallways and the elevators, as well as the public social areas. Do you feel comfortable there? Can you imagine yourself living there for an extended period?

  • Have the common areas and units been designed for comfortable and independent living? Is the floor plan well-designed and easy to follow?
  • Are doorways, hallways, and rooms accommodating to wheelchairs and walkers?
  • Are elevators available for those unable to use stairways and handrails to aid in walking?
  • Are floors of a non-skid material and carpets conducive for safe walking?
  • Does the residence have good lighting, sprinklers, and clearly marked exits?
  • Is the residence clean, free of odors, and appropriately heated/cooled?
  • In general, are the common areas comfortable and clean?
  • Is there an outside courtyard or patio for residents and visitors?
  • Does the residence provide sufficient security and is there an emergency evacuation plan?
  • Are there different sizes and types of units available with optional floor plans?
  • Are single units available and/or double occupancy units for sharing with another person?
  • Do units have furnished/unfurnished rooms? Is decorating by a resident permitted?
  • What is provided and what can the resident bring?
  • Is there adequate storage space?
  • Is a 24-hour response system accessible from the unit with own lockable door?
  • Are bathrooms equipped with handicapped accommodations for wheelchairs and walkers?
  • Do all units have a telephone and cable TV? How is billing handled?
  • Does kitchen unit have refrigerator/sink/cooking element? Can food be kept in the unit?
  • May residents smoke in their units or are there designated public smoking areas?

Moving, Contracts, and Finances

A conversation about money and contracts can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. The following list of questions will help you start the discussion and find out all of the essential things you need to know before you move in.

  • What’s involved with the moving in/out process?
  • Is there available a written statement of the residents’ rights and responsibilities?
  • Is a contractual agreement available that clearly discloses healthcare, accommodations, personal care, supportive services, all fees, as well as admission and discharge provisions?
  • What is the payment schedule if residents own or rent their unit?
  • How much is the monthly fee? How often can it be increased and for what reasons? Is there a limit on the amount of increase(s) per year? What is the history on monthly fee increases?
  • Are residents required to purchase renters’ insurance for personal property in their units?
  • Do billing, payment, and credit policies seem fair and reasonable? May the resident handle their own finances with staff assistance or does a family member/third party need to be designated?
  • When may a contract be terminated and what are the policies for refunds and transfers? Is there an appeals process for dissatisfied residents?
  • What happens if funds are depleted, and full payments can no longer be made?
  • Are there any government, private, or corporate programs available to help cover the costs?
  • What additional services are available if the resident’s needs change? Who coordinates these services?
  • Is there a procedure to pay for additional services such as skilled nursing care or physical therapy if services are needed on a temporary basis?

Health/Personal Care/Services

A large part of retirement communities are the personal care and health services available. Some are all-inclusive, or you might have to pay extra for specific amenities and services. You’ll want to find out which services are included and which aren’t, and use that information to inform your decision.

  • Can the facility provide a list of available services? Are residents and families involved in the development of the service agreement? Who provides these services and what are their qualifications?
  • How are medical emergencies handled? Does the residence have a clearly stated procedure for responding to medical emergencies? Is there an arrangement with a nearby hospital?
  • Is there a staff person to coordinate home care visits from a nurse, physical or occupational therapist, etc., when needed on a temporary basis?
  • Are medical services available, and how are these services provided?
  • Are housekeeping, linen service, and personal laundry included in the fees, or are they available at an additional charge? Are on-site laundry facilities available and convenient?
  • Does the residence provide transportation to doctors’ offices, hairdresser/barber, shopping, and other activities desired by residents? And can arrangements be made on short notice?
  • Are pharmacy, hairdresser/barber services on-site or nearby?

Social and Recreational

Retirement communities are often tight-knit, social environments. Find out if the community has a full schedule of events and activities to make the residence a fun place to be. It’s is where you’re going to spend most, if not all, of your time, so you want it to be an enjoyable place where you can make friends.

  • What kinds of group/individual recreational activities, if any, are offered? Who schedules them?
  • Are there organized activities programs with a posted daily schedule of events?
  • Do volunteers and family members come into the residence to participate/conduct programs?
  • Does the facility schedule trips or go to other events off premises?
  • Do residents participate in activities outside of the residence in the neighboring community?
  • Are the resident activity (social) areas appropriate and desirable to the prospective resident?
  • Are there supplies for social activities/hobbies (games, cards, crafts, computers, gardening)?
  • Are religious services held on the premises or arrangements made for nearby services?
  • Are there fitness facilities, as well as regularly scheduled exercise classes?
  • Are residents’ pets allowed in the residence? Does the facility have pets and who cares for them?


It isn’t just other residents that you’ll be spending time with. The residence staff is a huge part of the living experience since they’ll be on call to assist if you need it. If there’s a lot of turnovers, that can create chaos and an uncomfortable living environment.

  • Ask about the residence’s practices and philosophy regarding staffing.
  • What are the hiring procedures and requirements for eligibility? Are criminal background checks, references, and certifications required?
  • Is there a staff training program in place and what does it entail?
  • Is staff courteous to residents and each other? Do they respond for assistance promptly?
  • Is the administrator or appropriate staff person generally available to answer questions or discuss problems and would the prospective resident be comfortable dealing with them on a daily basis?


It might not be the first thing on your mind, but food will play a significant role in your happiness and health at the residence. Find out if you can try the food if they provide meals or if you are allowed to cook in your residence. You have to eat a few times a day, and you don’t want to dread mealtimes.

  • Does the residence provide any meals? If so, how many times a day, how many days a week, and how does the menu vary from meal to meal?
  • What about special diets? Does a qualified dietitian plan or approve menus?
  • Are residents involved in menu planning and may they request special foods?
  • Does the dining room environment encourage residents to relax, socialize, and enjoy their food?
  • Are common dining areas available? When may residents eat meals in their units?
  • Are meals provided only at set times or is there some flexibility? Are snacks available?
  • How many meals are included in the fee? If a resident becomes ill, is tray service available?
  • Can residents have guests dine with them for an additional fee? Is there a private dining room for special events and occasions, if desired?

Licensure and Certification

You want to find out all you can about the residence, even the aspects that don’t seem as crucial like their certification and licensure. Are their license and certification up-to-date and displayed? What is the facility’s reputation? That information can tell you a lot about how the facility is run and if people generally have respect for it.

  • If the state requires the residence to be licensed, is the current license displayed?
  • If the state requires the administrator to be licensed/certified, do they have a current license/certification?
  • Is the facility a member of a trade or professional association?
  • What reputation does the facility have in the community? How long has it been in business? Is it in good financial shape? Does the facility follow generally accepted accounting procedures?
  • If a nonprofit organization sponsored the facility and managed under contract with a commercial firm, what are the conditions of that contract?
  • Is there a resident council or organization through which residents have a means of voicing their views on the management of the community?

There is a lot of information to keep track of and process when you’re looking at a new retirement community. It’s a big step to make the change to downsize your home and move to a new community, so you want to be as informed as possible about the facility so you can make the best decision. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions and then more follow-up questions.

This checklist for how to choose a retirement community will help you start those difficult conversations with residence managers and find the best possible fit for you or your loved one.

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