The Right Time for a Retirement Home: 3 real-life stories

When is the best time to embrace retirement living? When is it time to accept help? Is it ever too late to make a lifestyle change?

You’d need a crystal ball to answer these questions – but let’s look at three real-life experiences for some clues.

Kay enjoyed living in her condo, even after her husband died, but when friends sang the praises of a nearby retirement community many of them had joined, she was intrigued and made a deposit on a spacious suite. She moved in – but although she spent most of the week there, she’d go back to the condo on weekends ‘just for now’.

Audrey, always a loner, lived in her little house for 50 years. In the past decade most of her old neighbours had died or moved away, and she didn’t approve of the ‘monster houses’ going up all around her, or the new, noisy young families moving in. She was managing alright until she slipped while rolling the recycling bin down her snowy driveway, broke her hip and never went home again.

Joe and Jenny had been inseparable for over 60 years. Jenny was experiencing mid-stage dementia but they functioned well as a couple. When Joe received a terminal diagnosis of liver cancer, he knew he’d have to act fast to get them into supportive environment, both for his palliative needs and for Jenny’s long-term well-being.

The triggers that drive seniors to seek help vary, but the most common are death of spouse, illness of self or spouse, especially diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness. In other cases, doctors, family and friends may have noticed memory loss, poor self-care or mobility challenges. Seniors themselves may feel the effort of shopping, meal preparation and housework is too much, or feel lonely as friends or family die or move away. Even the loss of a driving license can invoke a sense of isolation and make everyday activities too much of an effort.

While few seniors adopt assistance too soon, many wait too long, until their options are limited for housing, support and care.


What our three scenarios can teach us about timing

The story of Kay

Kay was in denial about the need to move from her condo, and sought to placate her family and friends by taking the retirement home suite. This half-hearted approach was really self-sabotage on many levels. In terms of costs, carrying two homes was an excessive expense; she was paying condo fees as well as monthly retirement home rent, which included a full meal package, medication management and activities. She was dividing her energy and commitment between the two homes, giving neither a fair chance of success.

Why did Kay behave this way? Much of it stemmed from her desire to please, undercut by memories of placing her own mom in a nursing home 40 years before. Kay was experiencing may of the 5 stages of grief – see sidebar – of anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance – that accompany any unwelcome change, not just death. Kay was ‘bargaining’, trying to maintain both lifestyles, while committing to neither. She also felt ‘anger’ that accepting retirement living, which she associated with her mother, was now looming for her. She was also ‘denying’ the reality of the true financial cost of maintaining two living spaces. So many costs and negatives – and nothing seemed enjoyable! One of Kay’s reasons for spending weekend in her condo was ‘she didn’t know anyone’ at the retirement home. In fact, many activities, especially those that included residents’ families, were held on weekends, so her weekends away were actually making it harder for her to make new friends.

After six months, the condo board advised Kay that she was now considered an ‘absentee owner’, prohibited by their bylaws, so she would have to make a choice. She opted to sell the condo and tried to settle into retirement home life, still feeling ambivalent.

What would have helped Kay make a choice? A trial stay of a month – fulltime - would have given her the full experience of the retirement community. Most residences have ambassador programs and buddy systems so that new residents are made welcome. So-called ‘cliques’ are minimized and management makes every effort to be sure residents are well matched at dining tables and activities, and that family members are always welcomed.


The story of Audrey

Audrey’s loner personality had made her a recluse; her hoarding habits had made her house very cluttered and unsafe. She was convinced that retirement homes only offered tiny bedsitters with no storage. While neighbouring houses were fetching record prices, she ‘just had to sort through a few things’ before agreeing to sell. This sorting went on for five years with little progress. When she broke her hip and was taken to hospital, her power of attorney was told she would never return, and brought in a team to quickly clear the house, which sold within a week. Audrey moved into a long-term care suite that was nicely furnished, but her treasured possessions, which had looked like junk to others, were gone with no chance of recovery. Fretting over what had been lost destroyed her peace of mind and poisoned her against her new home.

Like Kay, Audrey would have benefited from a trial stay to allay her fears about her the size, layout and storage potential in a retirement home. A trusted senior-mover, with Audrey’s input, could have helped her downsize her possessions. Once surrounded by what was demonstrated that she really needed, Audrey would have found it much easier to discard the rest. As it was, she remained in the ‘depression’ stage of grief and never gave herself the chance to enjoy her new home.


The story of Joe and Jenny

Joe and Jenny appeared to be doing well, but in fact Jenny relied on Joe to cue her on every aspect of daily life, from dressing to meals to bedtime. They were extremely lucky to find a life-lease condo in a senior’s community which offered a full spectrum of care from independent through to long-term care. Joe ensured the condo’s floor plan corresponded as closely as possible to their bungalow so that Jenny would feel right at home. A shy man, he exerted himself to take Jenny to activities and develop friendships to enrich her life, and eased her into accepting the personal care that was made available. When it was time for him to accept at-home palliative care, he was greatly relieved to know how well Jenny was set up for now and in the future.


Joe had attained ‘acceptance’, the ultimate goal in the stages of grief. He had faced his situation, researched and implemented solutions and graciously accepted the help that was needed.


What can we learn from our three situations?


  1. Listen to advice from trusted friends and advisors. Is it time – and I just can’t see it?
  2. Analyze where you are in the stages of grief. Try to determine why, and how to move ahead. Get professional advice from a therapist, family doctor or clergy to help clarify your path.
  3. Research your options before you need to know them. Talk to friends and advisors – where have others moved, what is their experience?
  4. Understand all aspects – costs, services, amenities, admission requirements, size and layout, special requirements such as diets, accepting pets, providing parking
  5. Try before you buy! Always do a trial stay; talk to other residents and their families. Watch, listen, learn. Talk to management – they are there to help.


Timing is everything – so make sure time is on your side!

Sidebar – the Five Stages of Grief
The Five Stages of Grief  were first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, inspired by her work with terminally ill patients. The stages can apply to any unwelcome life change, and the stages need not occur in this order.
Denial —reality cannot be taken in or believed; Kay could not believe that retirement living and old age had reached her.
Anger —frustration, laying blame – ‘why me? who caused it?’ Audrey was (understandably) angry that her belongings had been sold and thrown out.
Bargaining —seeking compromise – Kay thought if she adopted both lifestyles, everyone would be pleased with her and it would all work out somehow.
Depression —individuals may be silent, refuse visitors, isolate themselves – Audrey, in strange surroundings with no familiar possessions, became silent and depressed.
Acceptance —‘I may as well prepare for it’ - a calm, retrospective view, stable emotions, focus on survivors – Joe could die at ease knowing Jenny was surrounded by care and support.


Written By Pat M. Irwin, BA, AICB, CPCA 
President, ElderCareCanada 
Professor, Distance Learning, Centennial College
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