5 Options for Group Living for Senior Residents

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When you are considering your options for long-term care or elderly housing, assisted living facilities are one option, but there are many more. Perhaps the idea of living with a group of strangers, whose backgrounds may or may not be similar to yours, does not appeal to you. You would rather spend time (and there will be lots of that) with people who share some aspect of your history or experiences.

What options are there besides institutional assisted living facilities? You have a few, but finding the right one is often a challenge. The five main choices are independent living for seniors, affinity communities, cohousing arrangements, house sharing, and group homes.

In general, none of them have the same range of services as in most other assisted-living facilities, but exceptions exist. These alternative settings vary, depending a lot on the organization that started them.

Independent living for seniors

Independent living covers a wide range of options -- including Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) and Villages. Most definitions of independent living include any housing arrangement designed or adapted for people aged 55 or over. Some are low-income or subsidized senior housing, and some are high-end retirement communities, complete with golf courses and other amenities.

In a continuing care retirement community, independent living is the first level. Whatever the arrangement, the emphasis is on providing a safe and barrier-free environment where basic services are provided to people who can manage with little or no assistance.

Affinity or niche communities

Affinity or niche communities are for people who have common backgrounds, usually because of prior employment. There are approximately 100 of these niche communities around the country. The most famous is the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in California. In existence since 1940, it has been the last residence of many film legends.

The 2012 movie Quartet depicted a fictional version of a residence where aging musicians continued their craft and personal friendships and disputes. Like its real-world California counterpart, it faced continuing needs to raise funds.

Some affinity communities are based on more typical kinds of employment. For example, there are communities for volunteer firefighters, unionized letter carriers, university professors and administrators, and others. Costs are generally lower because they are subsidized by the founding organizations.

The best way to find out if you would fit into one of these communities is to ask the union or professional organization that represents the interests of retired workers to guide you.

Affinity communities may be based on other shared interests beyond employment, such as travel, sports, or hobbies. Ask yourself: Is this connection really important to me? Do I want to spend most of my time with people who feel the same way I do, or who worked in the same industry? It may be a wonderful match, or a little too much of one thing.

Cohousing arrangements

Cohousing is a community-development effort as well as housing arrangement. It may be initiated by a group of neighbors or friends. Some cohousing projects are started by housing developers. Cohousing is different from NORC.

In NORCs, people have aged in place, and service programs can be created around their existing neighborhood. The Village concept is similarly built around existing communities. Cohousing is a designed community.

An idea that started in Denmark, this option involves a group of friends or neighbors who live in separate houses and manage their own finances but work together to design and manage their own community.

According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, cohousing has six defining characteristics: participation in the planning process, neighborhood design, common facilities, resident management, nonhierarchical structure and decision making, and no shared community economy (members are not paid for their contributions to the community). There are entry fees and monthly charges.

The potential benefits include the mutual support that members can provide and the village-like atmosphere that is part of the cohousing philosophy. Opportunities for multigenerational living are also important for some families with grandparents or other older relatives.

There are, of course, downsides. Cohousing can be expensive, especially if you do not use all the common services. Privacy is limited, and the community may have more or less stringent rules, especially about selling property.

The Cohousing Association's website has a directory of communities by state. These sites are concentrated in Western states like California and Washington but there are some examples throughout the country. And if you are energetic, you can start a cohousing project yourself.

House sharing

On a more informal scale, sometimes friends get together and say “Let's live together and take care of each other as we get older.” There are even websites for older people looking to share housing. While this idea may be appealing, it takes a good deal of organizational and management skills to make it work.

It also depends a lot on each person being mentally sharp, reasonably healthy, and cooperative in nature. This may be true at the outset, but people and circumstances change. Before entering a house-sharing arrangement, have everyone agree in writing on the basic house rules such as how the common rooms will be used, when and how to pay bills, and any special considerations such as allergies, pets, and visitors.

So far this idea seems to appeal mostly to women who are single or widowed, although historically men who were separated from their families because of work or illness organized themselves into similar arrangements.

Group homes

Called, variously, residential-care homes, adult family homes, adult foster care, personal-care homes, and board-and-care homes, these are houses in residential neighborhoods that can usually accommodate a small number of people. Typically the residents have a bedroom but not additional private space. The owners provide meals and some assistance with ADLs (activities of daily living).

These homes are much less expensive than assisted living, but they don't provide the same range of services. In some states, Medicaid may pay for a group home for eligible people. If you're considering this option, make sure the home is licensed by the state.

Investigating this type of housing involves many of the same steps as looking at assisted living or other group setting. However, these are formerly private homes, operated by private individuals, and their reputation, credentials, and training are particularly important.

As in assisted living, visits at different times of day are crucial. Some questions you may want to ask are about food preferences and special diets, whether pets are permitted, television and telephone access, and whether and when guests are permitted.

Finally, remember that you or your parent are looking for a home, not a hotel or a temporary place to stay. Whether the ultimate choice is assisted living or some other group arrangement or to age in place, it should be a decision that is based on your needs, preferences, and resources.

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