Home Sweet (Retirement) Home?

Find the best place to spend your (or your parents’) golden years.

For an entire generation who (paraphrasing The Who) “thought they’d die before they got old,” shepherding aging parents through their latter years can be a shocking wake-up call. Surely some savvy developer who has done the math will start planning a retirement community that includes locally grown organic California cuisine, an alternative medical care center and meditation and yoga studios for us.

This month we take a look at what’s available for senior housing and offer resources for further study. In all of these options it is crucial to check that the facility is licensed through state or county agencies and that it has a record of safety and security. Also, read all contracts very carefully before signing on the dotted line, as hidden fees or unavailable services can be an unwelcome surprise. If you find a place you like, sign up sooner rather than later—the good ones can have a two-year waiting list.

Caveat emptor: there are a lot of new facilities coming on the market that haven’t been able to live up to the promises offered in their glossy brochures. Whatever you choose, check out the place at another time—when they don’t expect you—to make sure that the meals actually are grilled salmon as they fed you and your parent(s) at the “pitch” and not the grilled bologna that they actually feed the residents on a day-to-day basis (true story). And always speak to the other residents to see how they like the place.

Doing the numbers

“Retirement planning is financial planning,” says elder law/estate planning attorney Linda Durston. Fortunately, there is a safety net in place for the most destitute elderly, but with the coming tidal wave of seniors on the horizon you can bet legislators are looking at making changes to the law at some point down the road. Currently, an individual with less than $2,000 ($3,000 for a couple) in assets not including a home can have in-home support services such as dressing, bathing, cooking and running errands paid for by Medi-Cal, California’s version of a federally funded program that varies slightly from state to state. Medi-Cal will also fund long-term care in a skilled nursing facility. Medicare benefits will cover nursing home stays of up to 100 days per incident with some exceptions.

Even for those who have amassed substantial savings, one unexpected hospitalization or extended nursing home stay can rapidly decimate a nest egg. Some years back, 88-year-old Berkeley resident Darline Pickrell, who now receives in-home care, secured a long-term health insurance policy. That decision has paid off, literally. “All her assistance is paid for,” says Pickrell’s son Rik. “If she didn’t have long-term insurance, it would be coming out of her house, or my pocket.”

In order to protect savings, many seniors transfer assets to heirs or spouses in order to qualify for Medi-Cal benefits. Attorney Durston examines some of the thornier aspects of this practice: What is best for the client, what seems fair, and what is legal are not necessarily the same thing,” she says. Currently, an individual can transfer assets to anyone he trusts, but there may be penalties and tax consequences for transferring anything but your home.

Adults only

For some seniors who find that taking care of a big empty-nested house is too much maintenance and hassle, the idea of a “themed community” becomes attractive. Limited to those 55 and older, these communities combine individual homes, townhouses, condos and apartments. Upscale or modest, senior communities are an option for people from a variety of economic backgrounds. Many are built around or near golf courses or lakes. Many have extensive recreational facilities, access to social and cultural events plus dining facilities. Some include progressive life-care, which means that increasing amounts of medical assistance are available on-site, including nursing units and areas for those with dementia who need constant surveillance.

Among the best-known local senior adult communities is Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor. Six years ago, former Alamo residents Joseph Janlois, 90 (“going on 65”), and his wife, Marjorie, 80, moved to Rossmoor, leaving their high-maintenance home. “I went crying, kicking, screaming, [but] have grown to love it,” says Marjorie. “We have no responsibilities . . . . There are clubs and study groups for everything and there is something to do almost every day.”

More urban facilities like St. Paul’s Towers and Piedmont Gardens in Oakland and San Francisco Towers in the city can also provide life-care for residents who have paid a hefty entrance fee, often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. These life-care facilities offer a wide range of personal amenities and services (classes, entertainment, transportation, laundry, monitoring of medications) to residents in “assisted living” or who live independently; they can also meet the needs of residents who require skilled-nursing care or who go back and forth between these needs. In some places, regardless of the amount of health care and oversight required, all costs are included in the entrance fee.

Finding a community

Anne Fox and her husband knew it was time to move out of their Oakland hills home when the 10 stairs to the entrance became formidable. Fox, who was approaching 80, says her slightly older husband was beginning to feel isolated in the home they’d owned for 20 years. The couple decided to sell their home (fortunately, at a high point for the housing market) and move to Piedmont Gardens, a senior community within walking distance of Piedmont Avenue.

The couple moved to a small apartment of 500 square feet that was available at that time and waited for a bigger unit to open up. Fox said it was a good choice, for the most part.

“The residents are fine,” says Fox, who still works as a freelance copyeditor and is in several writers’ groups. “They’re quite brainy.”

At one point, Fox’s husband had to be hospitalized for three weeks but was able to return to a skilled-nursing floor in the building that enabled Fox to be close to him while he recuperated. Fox says she likes many things about Piedmont Gardens, especially the levels of care that are provided as well as the choice of privacy or social activity. Only a month and a half after they got that bigger apartment, on their 55th wedding anniversary about a year ago, Fox’s husband died.

“For myself, I would rather be here than in my house,” says Fox. “I feel safer.”

Her only complaint is one that seems prevalent across the board, at any number of senior communities: the food. She jokes that there is a committee that looks into food quality, but nothing (besides the names of the dishes on the menu) really changes. She admits that she’s a bit of a foodie; her daughter—Margaret Fox—is a well-known restaurant owner and a culinary consultant to a food market in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. “I have a different set of standards,” says Fox. “What can I do?”

Fox says fortunately she can walk to a lot of great restaurants.

Kathy Lutz, director of marketing for Claremont House in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, says seniors must first decide if the community can feel like home to them. “Every community has a different personality,” says Lutz. “Some are casual. Some are more formal where people tend to not share personally as much. You either feel good in the community or you don’t.”

Claremont House has some 145 residents ranging in age from 64 to 101; some residents live independently, using only dining and laundry services and participating in social activities such as discussions about opera or movie nights. Other residents at Claremont are in “assisted living” and enjoy those same services with extra support. “What we’re selling is not the real estate,” explains Lutz. “We’re selling the community.”

Many assisted-living facilities are located within or near urban areas and generally are designed for ambulatory seniors with no serious dementia (although some specialize in care for those with Alzheimer’s). Residents pay a non-refundable entrance fee (usually less than $5,000) and month-to-month rent for an apartment or studio that includes housekeeping, meals, recreational activities, entertainment and even shopping trips.

Arta Zygielbaum, director of community relations for Salem Lutheran Home, a nonprofit continuing care facility, says her facility offers an “aging-in-place approach” and tries to meet the physical needs of the residents while keeping them in assisted-living situations as long as possible. To make residents feel at home, Salem brings in children and animals and offers gardening.

“People who live here have a reason to get up in the morning,” says Zygielbaum.

P.A. Cooley, admissions director at Berkeley’s Chaparral House, says his nonprofit skilled-nursing facility is also on the “cusp of a culture change” regarding senior housing. For one thing, the term “nursing home” is out because it implies that residents are warehoused with meals and television sets. His facility, like other senior communities, seeks to stimulate residents by honoring their interests and intellect. “All the cool things that make Berkeley Berkeley are infused into our program,” says Cooley, who has five staff people dedicated to activities that include drumming, aromatherapy and spiritual discussion groups.

Nader Shabahangi, founder of Age Song, which has two life-care facilities in San Francisco and one coming soon to Emeryville, is trying to shift the cultural paradigm completely by honoring seniors as “elders.” He sends this message to residents and their families: “Maybe you don’t see the details anymore because your vision is gone, but you see more profoundly; maybe you don’t hear as well, but you know what’s worth listening to; maybe you don’t move fast, but you know where you’re going.”

No place like home

For those who choose to stay in their own homes or rented senior apartment housing, there are numerous services available to make life easier when getting up and down the stairs becomes difficult, or when tasks like remembering which medications to take become overwhelming. This is where state and local referral agencies are very helpful, as they have already gone through the vetting and licensing process for home health-care workers.

Alameda County publishes a booklet entitled Senior Citizens Resource Directory, with information on everything from housing and in-home care to food delivery, legal assistance, adult day-care centers for elderly with dementia; transportation, employment and volunteer opportunities, and more.

Through county agencies, seniors have also found shared housing in other people’s homes. Additionally, there is also what is called “home care,” often in a house that has room for a maximum of six residents and is licensed by the state to provide meals, assistance and 24-hour oversight. This is a popular option for seniors with dementia.

In some communities where the number of seniors is growing rapidly, creative residents have banded together to hire younger adults in their local neighborhood to help with shopping, cooking, paperwork, minor house repairs or computer assistance.

Some seniors use local businesses, such as Elephant Pharmacy in Berkeley and Oakland, as touchstones for health-care education, exercise and community. An Elephant pharmacist recently went to two local senior communities to talk about drug interactions with herbal supplements.

“Overall, we view ourselves as being a community resource,” says Chandre Sarkar, director of education and outreach for Elephant. “That’s why we have the programs and events that we do.”

In our independence-oriented society, it can be devastating and isolating for a senior when the DMV (or their children) take away his driver’s license. The necessity to be near markets, shops and cultural events has spawned some creative living accommodations for die-hard city dwellers. Alameda and Contra Costa counties publish lists of available senior housing (see Golden Opportunity).

Berkeley leads the movement with nearly 700 low-income senior units available within city limits. Tim Stroshane of the city’s planning department sounds a hopeful note for this market in general. “The strongest financing available for development is in senior housing,” says Stroshane. [Our] policy is to increase [seniors’] ability to remain in neighborhoods, and if necessary, to locate other suitable affordable housing to rent.”

Albany resident Sam Papowski, 82, used his savings to move into an assisted living complex where he paid on a month-to-month basis. Initially, he had moved because he was experiencing some dizziness and disorientation. After his daughter Ellen found a doctor who was able to balance his medications, his physical and mental health improved so dramatically that the very independent Papowski left the facility and moved back into a private apartment.

In all these moves, bringing furniture and cherished belongings from a previous home can be vital to maintaining the mental and emotional health of a loved one. Oakland marketing manager Pieter Hartsook recently helped his 93-year-old mother, Sarah, move from her home in Florida to an assisted-living facility in Alameda. Cramming the contents of her three-bedroom condo into a one-bedroom apartment was a challenge, but he discovered it was worth it. “One of my mother’s new neighbors came to her door with a forlorn expression and said, ‘Do you mind if I come in and just sit down? I don’t have anything of my own in my room.’”

(A final note to the Boomers: If you find this material useful you may want to post it in an obvious place, like on your refrigerator. After all, if you can’t remember what happened in the ’60s, who knows what you’ll remember in your eighties.)

Andrea Pflaumer has been there, done that. She is a regular contributor to The Monthly and her work has appeared in the Pacific Sun Newsweekly, the East Bay Express and the San Francisco Weekly.

Golden Opportunity

Instead of providing a truncated list of senior communities in the Bay Area, here’s a set of resources to get you started in your search.

Alameda County Social Services: (includes extensive phone list) www.alamedasocialservices.org/

Bay Area Community Services: (Affordable home care services) www.bayareacs.org; (510) 601-1074.

California Association for Area Agencies on Aging, www.c4a.info.

Center for Elders Independence, www.cei.org; (510) 433-1150.

Congress of California Seniors, www.seniors.org/resources.asp.

Contra Costa County Senior Services, www.cchealth.org/services/seniors; (800) 510-2020, (925) 229-8434.

Family Caregiver Alliance, www.caregiver.org.

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, www.n4a.org.

Subsidized Apartment Housing for Seniors, Alameda County: For list, (800) 510-2020; (510) 577-3530.



Senior Citizens’ Resource Directory (published by the County of Alameda Senior Services)

Caring For Your Parents – A Complete AARP Guide (published by AARP)

Worry-Free Retirement By Ralph and Loni Smith



Linda Durston, attorney specializing in estate planning, elder and disabled law, (510) 526-1376.

Gretchen Wettig, estate planning and elder law, (510) 559-2682.

Senior Insurance Services, Paul Kapiloff, (510) 848-3300.

Faces of the East Bay