Older couple moving into an apartment
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The premise and promise of senior living communities is more valuable than ever, according to the results of a new retirement survey.

Age Wave and Edward Jones, in partnership with The Harris Poll, in January surveyed more than 12,000 adults across five generations about retirement resilience. They found that most (93%) respondents agreed that preparation, flexibility and adaptability are key to retirement success. 

“Resilient Choices: Trade-Offs, Adjustments and Course Corrections to Thrive in Retirement” explored more than 50 individuals course corrections and other tips to thrive across the four pillars of the new retirement: health, family, purpose and finances.

Ken Dychtwald, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Age Wave, told McKnight’s Senior Living that the survey showed an increasing resilience among pre-retirees and retirees, as well as a willingness to make changes and set boundaries to improve their well-being in retirement.

The most recent survey showed an “enormous uptick” in peoples’ overall sense of well-being, happiness, sense of purpose and health among older adults volunteering in or contributing in some way to the greater community, he said.

“Usually, that’s not what goes on in these environments,” Dychtwald said of senior living communities. “To the extent communities can be a nexus and even coordinate going outside the walls of the community, and having people make an impact in their communities, would be terrific.”

Double down on wellness

Dychtwald said he has seen many communities that have a gym, pool or Tai Chi class. but Age Wave’s and Edward Jones’ studies have shown that those amenities are not enough to help residents meet their goals of growing old with health and vitality.

“People know what they ought to be doing, in terms of diet and movement and exercise, but when we asked whether they were doing it, only 52% were,” Dychtwald said. “We saw in our studies an intention / action gap.”

Senior living communities, he said, could play a more dynamic role in helping people upgrade their health span through more wellness offerings and more active promotion of those offerings.

Bob Morison, an Age Wave senior adviser, added that encouraging residents to enlist their friends in activities goes a long way in eliciting more healthful behaviors.

Education and support groups for common conditions — knee and hip replacement groups, or bereavement circles, for example — would provide value through encouraging exercise as part of recovery, he said.

Cannonballs and curveballs

Today’s retirees are approaching retirement with optimism and enthusiasm, but they also admit to being thrown “cannonballs” or “curveballs,” the research shows.

According to the results, 59% of respondents believe they can afford a comfortable and secure retirement lasting more than 10 years. Two-thirds of responding retirees (67%) and 62% of pre-retirees said they feel confident in their ability to handle the unexpected. 

But since retiring, 75% of retirees said they experienced “cannonball” events — major challenges that can derail plans — or “curveballs” — minor occurrences that can lead to setbacks. The most common challenges included having a family member or close friend pass away (42%), personal health issues (30%), coping with a spouse’s or partner’s health issues (21%) and significant financial setbacks (20%). 

For some, retirement itself can be a cannonball: 29% of participants said that they were forced to retire unexpectedly.

Dychtwald said that residents are going through many life changes, some of which may have precipitated a move into a senior living community. Mental health and wellness, he said, is important and operators can do more. He said communities might consider having a therapist or mental health professional provide weekly education on mental health topics, or invite members of the religious community to be available to counsel residents. 

The average 70 year old is different today, with a clear shift in attitude about interacting with a psychologist or social worker, Dychtwald said. When access to those professions is easily accessible, he added, some people will find their way to them and benefit. 

“Today’s pre- and current retirees know they will face challenges but are willing to make adjustments, trade-offs and course corrections to improve their quality of life and sense of well-being as retirement continues to last longer than ever,” said Lena Haas, head of wealth management advice and solutions at Edward Jones. 

Course corrections

Course corrections — positive actions to improve the retirement journey — are motivated by life events that change the circumstances and goals of someone’s life plan, according to study authors. The research measured how frequently retirees take each action and how much each action improved retirement across the four pillars: health (diet, exercise), family (spending quality time or setting boundaries), purpose (trying new things, expanding social circles) and finances (increasing savings, minimizing debt).

Dychtwald said that 93% of today’s older adults participating — and those on their way to retirement — indicated a willingness to make changes and be flexible and resilient to have a good life. 

When asked what was most important about their inheritance or legacy, Dychtwald said, respondents said it wasn’t money or property but values and life lessons.

“People have a craving, a desire to gather up their stories, have them written down or recorded,” he said, adding that capturing those stories should be part of what goes on in senior living communities. “They are taking place in life’s third age — a time when people ought to be not just gathering photo albums but stories that mean the most.”

He also said that senior living communities need to rethink the “senior” part of the name, as it has become stigmatized. Baby boomers see the word senior as old fashioned, and they are reluctant to contemplate a move into a community because they don’t want to “cross the threshold into seniorhood.”

Although there’s a scramble for what the new language ought to be, Dychtwald said that the words older adult and active lifestyles communities seem to be regarded more highly by the target population.

Take it for a test drive

To overcome some of the stigma associated with senior living communities, Morison suggested that one phenomenon worth exploring is the idea of older adults “test-driving” retirement activities — and even retirement living — before moving into retirement. 

“Spend two weeks in a community,” Morison suggested to potential residents, adding that doing so gives potential future residents a chance to be exposed to ways to stay healthy and purposeful, stick with a budget and find acceptable housing.

Dychtwald echoed that sentiment, saying that a study he did with assisted living and independent living residents a decade ago found that most people said they wished they had moved into a senior living community 10 years earlier. Misconceptions about senior living delayed those moves, he said. 

Offering a test drive, Dychtwald said, opens up opportunities for senior living communities to sell a lifestyle and has the potential to lead to longer stays.