Is a Retirement Community for You??>
Be Well

Is a Retirement Community for You?

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

A friend I have known for 50 years recently downsized from his large family home to an active retirement community. It has restaurants for the residents along with tennis courts, a swimming pool, a clubhouse, classes and activities, and even live theater. It also has an extended care facility in case anyone needs it, and even a nursing home. In his case, he paid one lump sum and will be taken care of for the rest of his life (something he was fortunate enough to have the financial resources to do). My friend and his wife absolutely love it. My wife and I winced a bit when we heard about it.

We can see why they are happy with their new living arrangement—for the ease, financial security, and ready socializing it gives them. My wife and I have our own concerns about our living situation—we talk about the fact that we live in a two-story house and what would happen if we can’t get up those stairs one day. Or if we have to give up our car keys, which would make it more difficult to continue doing our favorite activities, visit our children, and see our friends. After all, things to do and community interactions are not always at our doorstep. Still, an active retirement community is not for everybody.

It’s hard to tally the advantages and disadvantages of such a move, since one person’s pros are another’s cons. For instance, some people like the idea of a community built just for people their age, where it’s relatively easy to make friends because everyone’s at the same place in life. They also like not having to live near boisterous children and teenagers. For others, that same ready-made opportunity to socialize feels artificial and forced. And they don’t like the lack of age diversity—they don’t feel old—and want to remain part of the larger community.

Other aspects of retirement living that can cut two ways, depending on your proclivities:

  • Many retirement communities are on the outskirts of a city or town and are often gated. For some people, that provides a sense of safety and serenity. They like the peace and quiet and the orderliness of the community’s roads and streetscapes. For others, the distance feels isolating.
  • Active retirement communities offer a low-maintenance lifestyle that does away with such tasks as yard work and snow shoveling. That leaves more time for all the onsite activities. But many older people already lead very full lives, still have the vigor and drive to keep up their homes, and don’t want to live in what they may perceive to be a camp-like environment.
  • Retirement communities are easier on adult children, who don’t have to worry about their parents being in a home that is too big for their needs and requires too much upkeep. On the other hand, downsizing to a retirement community may make it harder for kids and grandkids to come for visits.

Of course, all these considerations are beside the point if you have no choice but to relocate to a retirement community, perhaps even to an assisted living facility or nursing home, because you’re experiencing creeping frailty or are ill, or for financial or other reasons. That is, there’s no easy or one-size-fits-all decision. But if you keep following the advice we give in the Wellness Letter, there is a greater chance that the choice will at least remain in your hands.

If a move is in your future, a good resource can be found at It details the spectrum of senior living options (from the active type of community my friend lives in to facilities that deliver increasing care as needed), along with other information that’s handy to have when choosing among them. I still plan to “age in place”—and the resource may help you do so, too.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Life Expectancy: A Difficult Doctor-Patient Discussion.