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New Tuscan Gardens resident Howard Halpin

Image: Gene Pollux

IN THE SUMMER OF 2017, a few months shy of his 95th birthday, Howard Halpin said to himself, “It’s time for a phase change here.”

The father of eight had been living alone in his three-bedroom Aston Gardens condominium since his wife passed away in 2014, and while he remained active—working five days a week at the airplane engine refurbishing company he founded with his son, and also finishing up his 10-year stint as president of his condo’s homeowners’ association—Halpin recognized that he might need assistance in the near future. “My aim was to find a place where I’d be close to the kids, but they wouldn’t have to lift a finger on my behalf,” he says.

After considering three or four local communities, assessing the friendliness of the staffs and lending his HMO expert eye to the facilities, he chose Tuscan Gardens. His first night in his new apartment was Oct. 11, 2017. “I like the way they structure the level of care into three stages,” he says of Tuscan Gardens’ independent, assisted-living and memory-care options. “Right now, I’m independent. But sometime I’m going to have to have some help. I didn’t think I was going to live until I’m 100, but the way I’m going right now, it might happen.”

The retirement living landscape has come a long way from the dreaded nursing homes that previous generations resisted. Today’s “life plan communities,” as the industry has taken to calling them, emphasize active lifestyles and socialization, with increasing levels of medical support built into a three-tier system: independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing. Each tier may have a different label—“senior community,” “elder care” and “rehab center,” for instance—and the amount and type of care provided varies. The first step is to understand what you’re getting into.

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Tuscan Gardens, like other retirement communities, plans activities to keep residents engaged.

Image: Gene Pollux

In some communities that offer all three levels of care, each tier may still be registered and regulated as a separate entity, with separate prices and admissions for residents who need to move between levels. Other communities offer a more seamless continuum of care.

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The lobby reflects the Tuscan theme.

Image: Gene Pollux

Tuscan Gardens is a rental-style community with an Extended Congregate Care license from the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Residents sign a lease on a particular residence and can then purchase a wellness plan according to their needs, with services like diabetic injections or continuous oxygen that can often be administered in their own home, without relocation. “Here our residents are able to, for supportive independent living and assisted living, stay in the same apartment,” explains Tammy Wearsch, Tuscan Gardens’ community relations director. “Our services are brought to them, into their suites.”

Other common options include Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), which also offer multitiered care and are licensed and certified by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulations. In a CCRC like the Glenridge on Palmer Ranch, residents, depending on their own existing insurance and health conditions, buy into an up-front contract that provides for a certain amount of prepaid medical care, across the spectrum of care, potentially for the rest of their lives. Essentially, CCRCs function as a form of specialty insurance.

Jacaranda Trace, like its counterpart to the north, the Sarasota Bay Club, operates in a similar fashion to a CCRC, but with a real estate component that means it’s regulated by the Florida Condominium Act. In addition to monthly fees for a customizable menu of medical and lifestyle services, residents have the option of purchasing their unit as an investment property. If they one day decide to move, the community purchases the unit back from them, with additional money for appreciation depending on their initial agreement.

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Resident Jack Allen at Glenridge with life planning specialist Robert Sidlow, left.

Image: Gene Pollux

“Everyone does it a little differently,” says Jacaranda Trace spokesperson Frank Herold. The variety of continuing care communities may seem overwhelming, but the plus side of all those choices is that, with research, you can find a community that meets all your needs.

Jack Allen, 79, moved to the Glenridge with his wife four years ago. “We looked at four different CCRCs before we decided on the Glenridge,” he says. “I would encourage people to look at as many communities as they could. It’s kind of like dating.”

When it comes to determining quality of care, your research can start online; medicare.gov provides extensive information and survey results for all manner of long-term care organizations.

Then come the questions. Meet with a staff member, a “life planning specialist,” and ask away: What kind of special programs/committees/activities are there? How does off-campus transportation work? Who supervises the fitness facility? What’s the staff turnover? How often are apartments cleaned? What kinds of meal plans are there? What kinds of medical staff are available overnight?

And remember, this is your life; ask yourself some questions, too. “The key is to figure out, what is it that you really want at this stage in life,” says Herold. “Identify those elements that are important to you, and then ask about those elements specifically.”

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The Glenridge’s Chocolate Bridge Club at play.

Image: Gene Pollux

Whether it’s performing arts, crafts, music, sports, gardening, academia, cooking, cards, computers or anything else, take stock of what you enjoy in your current lifestyle, and then see if the facility provides it or will work with you to give you options.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your uncertainties and address them from the get-go, advises Herold: “What are the scariest elements? What are the things you fear the most? Ask about those fears.”

There’s no substitute for first-person experience, especially with our area’s range of high-quality options. (Tuscan Gardens’ Wearsch recommends visiting unannounced. “If a community is operating as it should, they’ll be prepared,” she says.) A lot of your observations will be guided by common sense. When you visit, pay attention to the attitudes of residents and their interactions with each other and with staff. Are the facilities clean? Do they smell clean? Medical equipment is inevitable, but is it organized and well-maintained?

Of course, quality of medical care is vital. But as younger, healthier baby boomers look to make the move while they’re still independent, a vibrant community is key. Says Wearsch, “While you’re still youthful and able to make your own decisions, you want to participate in all the fun things going on—the outings, the events, the daily activities—and feel like you’re part of the community.” In many communities, prospective residents can stay a few days in a furnished guest room to assess the food and activities, and get a real sense of what it’s like to live there on a 24-hour basis.

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A Shakespeare reading group convenes at Glenridge.

Image: Gene Pollux

When all the right elements come together, the result, says Glenridge resident Allen, is not just physical health, but a deeper sense of meaning and belonging. “As you retire, that becomes harder,” he says. “In a community that is vibrant and active, you really do have a purpose.” In the end, finding the right fit and becoming part of a vibrant community can leave some continuing care residents with just one regret: that they waited to make the move.

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Jack and Jody Allen in their Glenridge home.

Image: Gene Pollux

“Our most common comment from people looking is, ‘I’m not ready yet,’” says Jacaranda Trace’s Herold. “And then after they move in, it’s, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’”

Resources

Find community comparisons, moving guides, financial outlines and more continuing care information at these websites.

Medicare compiles community reports and explains what services are covered.

AARP includes extensive senior living resources, including a lengthy list of questions to ask when you visit a life plan community.

LeadingAge is the national association representing all nonprofit CCRCs.

Seniors Blue Book includes extensive medical and lifestyle resources.

Sarasota County Aging Network produces an annual directory of local senior services.

Age-Friendly Sarasota is a countywide effort to promote active, engaged, and healthy living for people of all ages.

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