Spring Real Estate 2009

Publication Date: Friday, April 24, 2009

Real estate in retirement
Local seniors find increasing housing options

For those who can afford it, luxury senior-living facilities offer a wide range of amenities and services. And for those who prefer to remain homeowners, innovations in home design mean that seniors can upgrade their houses into safety and comfort without sacrificing style.

Palo Alto's Avenidas senior center offered its second annual housing conference in February, with experts on both moving on and staying put weighing in on the best ways to retire in comfort.

"I'd never move out of town," conference attendee Bud Rubin, a 40-year Palo Alto resident, said. However, he's considering a move to a senior-housing facility, ideally to 899 Charleston, part of the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life set to open this fall.

"I'm interested in the social opportunities," he said, adding that while he is active and independent by car and bike now, as he ages, "I might need more help or get stuck at home."

Freedom from chores, a desire to move closer to family and friends, a range of activities and services, plus transportation, safety and health support are all cited by seniors as reasons why they choose to sell their houses and embark on the "downsizing process" of moving to a senior-housing facility, according to Kay Sharbrough of Senior Seasons, a local organization that helps seniors choose housing.

Senior housing does not have to equal a depressing "old-folks home" or loss of independence, Sharbrough said. Rather, moving to a senior community "helps you reserve your energy for more fun and fulfilling activities," she said.

Independent and assisted-living facilities offer seniors individual apartments, often with kitchenettes, provide meals and activities, and sometimes have special wings for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. Options in the Palo Alto area, such as Classic Residence by Hyatt, include gourmet meals and a wide range of luxury amenities.

Classic Residence is an example of the increasingly popular "continuing-care community" (CCR), which provides changing levels of care as the residents age and require increased assistance. Such communities, Sharbrough said, usually require a "health and wealth screener," meaning an applicant must be in good health (and sometimes under a certain age) and wealthy enough to pay the hefty down payments (ranging around $75,000-$1.5 million) and monthly fees ($3,000-$6,000).

Other local CCRs include The Forum at Rancho San Antonio, Pilgrim Haven in Los Altos, The Sequoias in Portola Valley, and Palo Alto's Channing House and Webster House.

Equity is often returned when a resident moves out or dies, Sharbrough said, but facilities have rules about when a resident may be moved from an independent apartment into a situation requiring more care. In February, a judge ruled against a 90-year-old Channing House resident who is set to be moved to the residence's skilled-nursing section soon against her will. She is currently appealing the ruling.

"I suggest you read very carefully the contract," Sharbrough said "and with legal assistance."

More traditional types of senior housing can still be found on the Peninsula, including "senior-focused living" ( apartments, trailers or condominium complexes that have a minimum age requirement but otherwise function as standard living arrangements with monthly rents or mortgages), subsidized housing for low-income residents (licensed through HUD), board-and-care facilities (single-family homes converted into residences for six to 15 seniors with 24-hour caregivers) and skilled-nursing facilities (meant as temporary homes for those with illness or injury, or the seriously debilitated). Sharbrough's Senior Seasons (seniorseasons.com) and Avenidas (www.avenidas.org) offer extensive lists of local resources and senior-housing facilities.

With his children now out of the area and several friends planning on moving to 899 Charleston, "moving becomes an attraction," Rubin said.

However, he does not look forward to the hassle of actually selling a home and moving out. "It's easier to die in place and let the kids worry about everything else," he said, laughing.

The stress of home selling can be greatly reduced by assembling a team of specialists to help seniors every step of the way, Nancy Goldcamp, a Realtor from Coldwell Banker in Palo Alto and co-presenter of the conference, said.

"The best time to move is when you want to, not when you need to," she said, adding that it can sometimes take several years to become ready to put a house on the market. Planning ahead is key. "For many seniors, it's been 50 years since they sold a house," she said, and the experience can become overwhelming.

Kate Brauner, a "senior-moving specialist," works as an organizer and assistant in the packing, downsizing and moving process. She said she starts a project by helping seniors decide what to keep and what to get rid of -- which is usually quite a lot.

"We find things that haven't been seen in years and things that should not have been seen in years," she said.

She advised keeping only the most practical, valuable and meaningful items, then donating or selling the rest. Getting rid of years' worth of stuff can be difficult for many but in the end most feel refreshed, she said. "It's an emotional time, but there is no reason not to downsize."

Sellers sometimes spend up to $100,000 in home improvements and staging before putting a house on the market. "It pays off in spades," Goldcamp said.

Rolund De Hoog, 89, said now that he's nearing his 90th birthday he is looking into some senior-housing options at the behest of his son. "It's about time," he said.

De Hoog, a widower who lives alone in a three-bedroom house in San Carlos, said he's remained independent and active but that he simply has "too much house" for his current situation. He said he was impressed by the wealth of information and options available, but admitted he would really prefer to stay in his own home.

For many seniors like De Hoog, "aging in place" and keeping one's house is still the most common choice, Goldcamp said.

However, most houses contain features that can become hazardous to seniors with limited vision or mobility. There are a range of modifications, from the cheap and simple to extensive remodelling that can make an existing home meet a senior's changing needs, according to contractor Iris Harrell, owner of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. of Mountain View, and home-safety specialist Martin Simenc of Foster City's Home Safety Services.

Falls are the leading cause of hospital visits for those older than 70, Simenc said, due to impaired vision, increased medications and lack of physical activity. To modify the home environment to decrease the risk of falls, grab bars -- handles bolted to walls in key locations -- are an easy and cost-effective solution.

"Grab bars are your friends," Harrell said. Grab bars -- especially handy in the bathroom -- come in all colors and cost only around $100, including installation.

More elaborate home modifications can include improved lighting, ramps for wheelchairs and walkers, tubless showers or showers with transition benches, commode railings, bedside poles and even elevators.

Ruth Goldbeck and Connie Hancock, who've lived side by side in Eichlers for the past 50 years in Midtown Palo Alto, said they did not plan on moving out of their homes although, Hancock said, a life free of plumbing problems and yard work is tempting. At 84, though, she said she is past the maximum age for entering a place such as Channing House or The Sequoias.

While she generally finds the single-story and open floor plan of her Eichler senior-friendly, Goldbeck said she was planning on renovating her kitchen and would take some of the safety tips recommended by Simenc and Harrell into consideration.

"Do not let aesthetics deter you, it doesn't have to look institutional," Harrell said. Harrell, who recently converted her own Portola Valley home to universal design (meaning suitable for people of all ages and abilities), said a "user-friendly" home means no matter how old or what size a person stays at her house, everything is accessible and comfortable to her and her guests.

Regardless of whether seniors choose to try out a new community or remain in their houses, considering their options carefully before comfort and safety are compromised is the best way to make the right choice, Sharbrough said. "The best gift you can give your friends and family is to plan ahead and organize."

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.