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Very recently, a Facebook post by Terry Robison touted the virtues of older adults living in a Holiday Inn rather than a nursing home. He stated “With the average cost for nursing home care costing $188 per day, there is a better way when we get old and too feeble… I’ve already checked on reservations at the Holiday Inn. For a combined long term stay discount and senior discount, it’s $59.23 per night. Breakfast is included, and some have happy hours in the afternoon.”
What’s wrong with this statement? So many things I hardly know where to start. For one thing, Mr. Robison seems to have mixed up nursing homes with retirement communities for assisted living. In 2019, with 10,000 boomers crossing the threshold of age 65 every day, people in this country need to know the difference between a nursing home and the various kinds of retirement communities where one might spend their later years. Average nursing home costs are far greater than $188 per day. AARP reports that a private room in a nursing home has now topped $100,000 per year ($273 per day). On the other hand, the daily cost for assisted living communities in the U.S. varies widely from state to state, but on average is closer to $120 per day.
Money aside, what made this Facebook post go viral? Does anyone really think a Holiday Inn (or any hotel) is a reasonable place to live when one grows weary of cooking meals and mowing the lawn? I hope not. However, the fact that this post resonated with enough Facebook members to make it one of the most-shared posts of the week makes me think there may be hundreds of thousands of readers who actually think it could be a viable option. OMG!
So what is the real problem here? I call it “magical thinking,” a term I borrowed from Augusten Burroughs and Joan Didion, whose books carried those words in their titles. Magical thinking can be defined as believing that wishing or wanting something can make it happen. It is a form of denial. The way that applies to the extraordinary response to Robison’s post is based on the level of denial most Americans express about their own later life and death. Most people spend much more time planning their next vacation than preparing for retirement and aging. When I ask my new clients how they would like to spend their final days, the response I get most frequently is a shrug, followed by a statement like “I guess I would just like to die in my sleep after a great game of golf.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all wave a magic wand and get our own version of that?
The reality is quite different. Anyone turning 65 today has almost a 70% chance of needing long-term care at some point in their remaining years; over 80% of adults have chronic illnesses that will ultimately lead to death. In addition, the Stanford School of Medicine Palliative Care department has determined that although 80% of Americans say they would like to die at home, 60% of older adults die in acute care hospitals and 20% die in nursing homes. These are sobering statistics and they would most likely drive anyone into denial. But we must face these facts if we want to change them and magical thinking won’t do the trick.
Many baby boomers can be commended for waking up to the fact that staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a diet that is mostly plant-based will help them avoid or better manage the chronic conditions that have plagued their parents. That alone will probably change the health statistics for older adults over the next 20 years and may improve our chances of having a relatively easy road and experiencing a swift death when our time comes. Isn’t that what we all want? A very dear friend of mine describes her desired lifeline this way: “happy, happy, happy, happy, dead.”
If we can stop the magical thinking that we will die on the golf course and take a more realistic approach to our later years, we will be in much better shape to meet whatever the future brings. I have to commend Robison for one thing: at least he is thinking ahead. He is paying attention to the fact that nursing homes are exorbitantly expensive and most of us should be trying to avoid them for anything other than brief stays for rehabilitation after injury or surgery. What are the alternatives? If you are determined to age in your home, the most important step to take is evaluating your home for livability as you get older. For ideas on that, you might want to take a look at the AARP website section on livable communities, which includes guidelines on making your home safe for aging. Then talk to some of the home care agencies in your area. Ask what they charge per hour and what kinds of services are available if you should need them. Most people discover that full-time home health care is about the same price as living in a retirement community with assisted living.
If you are open to the idea of moving to a retirement community at some point, I suggest researching what is available in your area (or an area where you would like to live). Take a look at assisted living communities, continuing care communities, and board and care homes. There are residential developments in one or more of these categories in almost every city or town in America. Familiarize yourself with the differences in services and cost. Many people have never set foot in one of these communities and therefore have only the vaguest notion, often incorrect, of what they are and who they serve. With a phone call or email you can make an appointment for a tour at a time convenient for you.
Developers are aware than boomers are not particularly interested in the kinds of retirement communities they built in the past, so they are designing communities attached to college campuses, day-care operations, and urban centers, all of which give residents the opportunity to continue learning, mix with all ages, and engage culturally with their environment. New concepts in living for older adults are springing up with every passing year. If you don’t like any of the traditional options, take a look at senior co-housing or other types of intentional communities. The important factor in all of this is to stay connected to people, continue to have a meaningful life, and be safe. There are lots of good options at many price points, but it will take some realistic thinking, soul-searching, and diligence to discover what will work best for each of us.