Retirement communities offer independence, but not all boomers are ready

Barbara Wolfert, 78, shows some of the treasures she has gathered during her travels while giving a tour of her apartment June 18 at Garden Plaza in Post Falls. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Many baby boomers aren’t ready for retirement – much less a retirement community. And some in this independent and free-spirited generation are indignant about even discussing the idea of someone so young moving to a community of, well, old people.

“Too busy working to think about the ‘home’ and my mother says she isn’t ready either,” wrote Becky Christner in response to a recent Facebook inquiry about whether baby boomers are ready for the retirement home.

Others were more blunt in their distain of thinking anybody in the 50 to 68 age range would consider living in an independent retirement community.

“Your post is really not even cool,” wrote Joanna Musulman, 55, a local actor and model who wrote she was too busy rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking, hiking, skiing, gardening, making soap, making wine and raising her children.

Perhaps Ginnie Williams, 62, of Spokane summed it up.

“We don’t readily accept aging,” Williams wrote. “We’re too busy being active to accept the structure of a retirement home.”

Yet these attitudes aren’t keeping retirement communities from courting the largest generation ever, the boomers born between 1946 and 1964. Even if boomers don’t like to admit it, they will eventually reach “old age,” and perhaps will decide having someone else do the cooking, cleaning and driving might be a good idea.

Marketers know boomers will eventually fill the retirement communities, which are moving toward restaurant-style dining, wine bars, spa-like bathrooms, larger living areas and closets, pools, yoga rooms, workshops, garden plots and ambience more reminiscent of a resort hotel than the boxy and institutional retirement apartments of the past. Technology upgrades so boomers can work from their retirement homes or so grandparents can communicate online with their grandchildren and friends are more and more common.

Sometimes the terminology throws off boomers, confusing a retirement community with the old notion of a nursing home.

“The biggest trend that I see is that the days of ‘putting mom in a nursing home’ are pretty much nonexistent,” said Beth Swilling, a certified senior care adviser with CarePatrol, who help seniors and their families find appropriate housing for the aging. “We run across this misconception and fear all the time.”

Today most skilled nursing facilities, formally called nursing homes, are mostly for rehabilitation, Swilling said. They aren’t places where people live until they die.

A retirement community is just that – an independent place, usually for people 55 and older, where residents can live without the tedious tasks of home maintenance, lawn care or daily cooking. Some communities offer apartments while others are more like suburban developments with individual homes or cottages. Usually the stand-alone homes don’t include meals, but there usually is a clubhouse or gathering place for neighbors to meet and recreate. There are even mobile home parks with similar amenities for the 55-plus population.

Garden Plaza in Post Falls is one of the area’s premier retirement communities, and it is attempting to catch baby boomers’ notice. Often the first exposure boomers have to these kinds of places is when they place their own parents in a smaller home where they keep their independence and active lifestyle, without the hassles of maintaining a larger house and property.

“The building feels like a beautiful vacation lodge with wide open halls and congregational spaces that have large, comfortable leather, stuffed chairs and couches,” said Swilling, who has toured most retirement communities in the region.

Yet the average age of Garden Plaza residents is the early 80s, with very few baby boomers. Often boomers only move into retirement communities if they have health issues or older spouses.

Garden Plaza General Manager Ann Byers said she pictures active boomers who have a condo at Schweitzer Mountain Resort but live at Garden Plaza during the week, kind of a home base where they don’t have to worry about the lawn, cooking or security when they leave for the mountain.

“We also expect people who both work but don’t want the upkeep of the home,” Byers said.

Debra Rubens, the director of marketing at Fairwood Retirement Village in Spokane, said baby boomers are more inquisitive than their parents and want to know everything about a community from its finances to its reputation. They also are more demanding in the services and activities they want. They want continuing education courses, travel opportunities and absolute freedom.

“We don’t use the word facility,” Rubens said. “We talk about different levels of residency. We tell people they can still work and come here for maintenance-free living. They are just changing locations and getting out from all the burdens so they can do what they want to do.”

Walt and Jodie Kroon and their Pomeranian Cherie moved into Garden Plaza in August. The couple are healthy and active. They recently drove to California to visit family and still put nearly 18,000 miles on their car each year. Walt, a concert organist, plays in the Spokane Symphony when an organist is needed and for three churches each week including the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane. But the couple is far from boomers. Walt is 82 and Jodie is 81. Their oldest two children are baby boomers – who are not interested in living in a place like Garden Plaza – and the youngest is in her 40s.

Although 100 percent independent, the Kroons made the difficult decision to leave their townhouse on Avondale Lake near Hayden when their 65-year-old neighbor, an avid runner, had a massive stroke.

Walt Kroon worried that maybe they needed a place that was smaller, safer and where assisted living was right next door if either of them had a health crisis. Besides the independent apartments, Garden Plaza’s campus also includes The Bridge assisted living, where residents receive health care services and medication management. Life Care Center of Post Falls, a sister company, provides skilled nursing and rehabilitation next door.

Jodie Kroon still isn’t sure if it was the right decision. She moved “kicking and screaming” and often feels guilty – and blessed – that she and Walt are some of the most healthy and active people in the building. Often their neighbors call on them for help getting out of a chair.

The Kroons thought they would stay in their home forever, getting medical services delivered if needed. Many aging people share that same sentiment.

Family Home Care, which provides in-home care, reports that 70 percent of people turning 65 will need long-term care. Yet 90 percent of people turning age 65 want to stay in their own home.

“Home is where everyone wants to be,” said Dean Roberson of Family Home Care.

Yet that’s not always possible. And retirement communities want people to know there are lots of options for living and making life easier before any health care is needed.

The Kroons said they can’t imagine baby boomers living in their community – no matter how nice the apartments or the services. They are in their early 80 and unsure if it’s a good fit.

“I just couldn’t see them here,” Jodie Kroon said.

Resident Barbara Wolfert, 78, agrees. She moved to Garden Plaza after her husband died, leaving her alone on a large property near Harrison, 30 miles from Coeur d’Alene, where she had to drive to the mailbox to avoid wildlife and hire somebody to plow snow. The retired Latin teacher, who took yearly trips to Europe with students, loves the safety of a retirement community and “getting waited on.” She likes the gourmet food and the fact she doesn’t have to rely on herself to cook or eat. Yet she can’t see her boomer children enjoying this lifestyle.

“You’ve first got to understand what it feels like to get older,” Wolfert said, adding that most boomers haven’t yet had that experience. “They just wouldn’t be appreciative.”

Williams, who commented on the Facebook post, said she is familiar with “the home” concept because both her grandmothers and mom lived in them.

“They changed considerably in the years between my grandmas’ residence and my mom’s, but I think the concept of ‘the home’ will have to change even more for us baby boomers to willingly live in them,” she wrote.


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus