PLANNING AHEAD: Personal choice makes a difference for senior living [Column]   

After living in a house where you raised your children and you know every nook and cranny, it is difficult to decide whether to stay where you are and, if you do decide to take the next step, where you should move. If you are one of a couple, your husband or wife or partner of many years might want to keep things as they are while you want to downsize. On the other hand, you might feel comfortable as you are while your significant other feels the call of a senior community. This can make the decision doubly hard.

So what are the considerations and how do you sort through the options? Sometimes the answer or answers become clear over time. Sometimes you take the course of least resistance and stay.  Sometimes a crisis causes you to rethink your options. These are some of the results I have seen as an elder law attorney over the past more than twenty years in this field.

• Most of the time where there is a true problem you see it in advance but either cannot or will not act for quite some time. Note that not everything is a true problem. If the house basically fits your needs and you have considered the alternatives then you and your spouse might make some improvements over time — a new addition for added space, upgrades to heating, electrical and so on, for instance. In this case it may make sense to stay where you are. Moving can be expensive and unsettling. Even then, however, changes need to be made over time even if those changes simply involve removing clutter or adjusting the home to current conditions. There are also several reasons why true problems can arise. Here are a few.

• You may be living in a home you cannot afford. You recognize that monthly mortgage payments especially when coupled with real estate taxes, homeowners’ association fees and upkeep absorb most of your income but you cannot bring yourself to sell and, even if you want to, other homes in the area or rentals are still very expensive. This a very difficult problem to solve since it develops over time. It might be necessary to consider a part-time job to make ends meet or it might involve a hard look at those expenses that are truly necessary and those that are not. Some financial planning may be involved.

• Your needs may have changed significantly. When you moved to your current home you were well and now your health or that of your spouse has changed. You may not be able to climb stairs and you live in an old three-story house.  The six-acre lot was attractive when you moved in but landscaping can be expensive and time consuming and your spouse can no longer handle the upkeep. You might hire someone to care for the property but this eats into your income.

• Your family has changed. After the children leave and parents are left alone in a house that might now seem too large and too expensive to maintain thoughts can wander in several directions. Does it make sense to stay? If your spouse or partner dies or you divorce what are the choices?

• Senior communities are often considered late in the process and this can present a problem. If you wait to consider moving to a senior continuing care retirement community you might find it is too late to be considered. There are wait lists at many communities and they might also refuse to accept a new applicant who is in poor health. Unfortunately it is often when a person is in poor health when he or she first considers moving to such a community. Is there an answer?

• One size does not fit all. If it is too late to apply and be accepted at a continuing care retirement community or if the admission charge or monthly rate is too high then you might look back to family. An “in-law suite” might be added to a son or daughter’s home or you and adult children might buy a home together. Here families should seriously consider a Family Agreement prepared by an experienced elder law attorney. Estate documents may also need to be modified to adjust to changing conditions.

None of these strategies should be attempted without professional advice but individual custom arrangements can be crafted for each individual family.

Janet Colliton, Colliton Elder Law Associates, PC, is a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation and limits her practice to elder law, retirement, life care and special needs planning, Medicaid, estate planning and administration and is located at 790 East Market St., Ste. 250, West Chester, 610-436-6674, [email protected]  She is also, with Jeffrey Jones, CSA, co-founder of Life Transition Service, LLC, a service for families with long term care needs.

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