Intent on downsizing and simplifying, seniors find many options for hearth and home

Mike and Joan Stern (also shown top center) ride their recumbent bicycles past their home in the Del Webb at Alegria over 55 subdivision, located west of NM 528 between Rio Rancho and Bernalillo. (greg sorber/journal)

Two years ago, Mike and Joan Stern moved from a large home on a half-acre property in St. Louis., Mo., to a smaller home on a more compact lot in the over-55 community of Del Webb at Alegria, wedged between Rio Rancho and Bernalillo.

“Everything about our life was about simplifying and downsizing. It wasn’t limited to a smaller home, but making things simpler,” says Mike Stern, 67, a semi-retired attorney who specializes in shopping center development and leasing. “We got rid of stuff, personal things, obligations.”

Joan Stern, 62, a retired health care administrator, says, “We sold half the contents of our house so we have less stuff, less clutter, less yard to care for and fewer things to worry about.”

Relieving themselves of these “burdens and trappings” they say, freed up more time for hiking, bicycling, swimming and travel.

Of course, the ideas of downsizing and simplifying mean different things to different people.

When fully built out, the community will be home to 376 single-family, single-story homes ranging from 1,400 square feet to 2,300 square feet and selling from $224,000 to more than $332,000.

An artist’s rendering shows the main courtyard at Acequia Jardin, an urban infill project in Albuquerque’s North Valley. (courtesy of garret smith ltd.)

The gated subdivision has a community center with a gym. Amenities include a library, catering kitchen, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, bocce courts and putting green, paved and lighted walking trails and private access to the Rio Grande bosque. Residents have formed clubs and interest groups centering on pets, wines, crafts, sports, veterans affairs and more. They pay an association fee but maintain their own property.

“In the subdivision where we lived in St. Louis for 17 years, we were involved with neighbors or in somebody’s home on social occasions maybe five or six times,” says Mike Stern. “Here, you can’t go an hour without running into people and talking and socializing. We’re from different areas and have different interests, but we are all at a stage of life with a commonality. It’s much more social.”

Plenty of options

When it comes to downsizing, the home is the largest and most obvious place to start. People may transition to purchasing a smaller home or renting an apartment. Older people may want the benefits of an assisted living situation to help with some chores. Others may want the security of a continuous care community, in which they initially move into an independent living apartment or casita, and then as they age and need more help transfer to an assisted living quarters, and finally a nursing care section.

For city dwellers, urban infill projects like Acequia Jardin on Rio Grande at Matthew NW, are a convenient way to go smaller. The one-acre site features four buildings each with two homes sharing a common wall, a renovated farmhouse and a guest casita. Most of the homes are 800 to 900 square feet. Each has a covered parking space and most have attic storage. The homes are clustered around a central courtyard and a large community garden.

Pamela Heater, the development’s sales and marketing partner, says residents pay an association fee but maintain their own properties. “There’s much less to care for in an 800- or 900-square-foot home, and the homes are new and green and sustainable, so they should be low maintenance for a very long time and have low energy bills.”

The majority of residents, she says, are boomers, many couples who “don’t want to give up home ownership and want to maintain an active lifestyle.” “Downsizing allows them to maintain that lifestyle without having to worry about taking care of a large home. They can travel and volunteer and have safety in living closer to their neighbors.”

Older residents, Heater says, “are forward-thinking and want to be in a home that’s small enough to manage as they age and become elderly.”

Assisted living

Julie Ellison, director of sales and marketing for The Woodmark at Uptown, an assisted living community, says in addition to downsizing from previous homes and yards, many residents there enjoy the option of no longer having to cook their own meals or clean house.

Woodmark residents can get a studio or a one- or two-bedroom apartment. All have an efficiency kitchen, though most people prefer to eat three meals a day in the dining room, she says. The Woodmark can also provide personal assistance for medication management, bathing, grooming, escorting to meals and activities and providing transportation.

The Woodmark also maintains a secure memory care area for people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and various dementias, Ellison says. The facility does not provide a skilled nursing care level for residents, but “we employ more nurses than most assisted living communities because our goal is to keep our residents here until the end of life,” she says. Hospice care is brought in for end-of-life residents as needed.

Rents start at $3,325 a month and go up depending on the services and level of care required. The Woodmark is a private pay facility. Long-term care insurance coverage and Veteran’s Administration Aid and Attendance benefits may pay for part of the expenses.

Progressive care

La Vida Llena LifeCare is a continuous care retirement community located on more than 20 acres. People can buy in as independent living residents, then move into an assisted living section and finally if needed, a nursing home facility with individual rooms, says communications coordinator Erika Sedillo. There is also a memory care section for people with dementia and related conditions.

Fees remain stable even as residents move to more intensive care living quarters, and they have lifetime financial protection ensuring their services continue even if they run out of money.

People can buy in starting at age 62, with a spouse or partner as young as 55. Entry fees start at just over $100,000 for a studio apartment and go up to more than $427,000 for a couple living in a three-bedroom apartment. Residents are required to have Medicare and supplementary coverage for additional expenses or needs, she says.

A self-contained community, La Vida Llena has on- and off-site transportation, a dog park, community garden, fitness centers, swimming pools, hot tubs, on-site bank, general store, chapel, library and more.

One of the biggest challenges for new residents, Sedillo says, is “getting them to let go of things physically so they can move into their new place,” not so easy after a lifetime’s accumulation of keepsakes and memories. If they can successfully do that, she says, “they will have the security of knowing they will be very well-taken care of until the end of their days.”

New approaches

The 341-room MCM Elegante Hotel in Albuquerque is trying a novel approach. It has designated 20 of its rooms and 16 of its suites as independent senior living spaces, says general manager Cynthia Fresquez.

“We are first and foremost a hotel, but our ownership wanted to make something affordable for independent senior living.”

The 250-square-foot studio apartments rent for $1,400 a month and the 340-square-foot one-bedroom apartments are $1,900 a month. Both have a refrigerator and microwave oven, but rents include breakfast and lunch seven days a week in the hotel’s restaurant. Residents are on their own for dinner, “but we are creating a special menu for seniors to make it affordable to have dinner there as well,” Fresquez says.

Also included in the monthly package are weekly linen service and once every other week full housecleaning; all utilities, including Internet and cable television; access to the hotel’s swimming pool, hot tub and fitness center; and free transportation anywhere within an 8-mile radius.

Pets are allowed in the independent senior rooms but they are limited to animals no larger than 18 inches at the shoulders and weighing no more than 30 pounds. A one-time pet owner deposit of $300 is required.

“The majority of people I’m speaking with want to downsize from 2,000-square-foot homes that they have to maintain and yards that they can’t keep up with,” Fresquez says. “Some of them have experienced the loss of a spouse and others just want to simplify their lives and have the freedom to travel more.”