University of Evansville

Gerontology Center

The Gerontology Center at the University of Evansville provides aging-related programs both to UE students and to community members interested in learning more or advancing their skills in the field of gerontology.

Research

An Assessment of The Retirement Community Lifestyle

Hanns G. Pieper, Ph.D.
Department of Law, Politics and Society
University of Evansville, Evansville, Indiana

Statement of the Problem

As older persons continue to comprise an ever-greater proportion of our total population, housing alternatives that were experimental several decades ago are now becoming more common housing for our older population. Where once the nursing home was the only alternative to living independently in one's own home, today the number of alternative housing styles continues to proliferate and this includes retirement communities.

Retirement communities cover a wide range of settings. Some are whole towns which have been converted into retirement communities. Some retirement communities are a part of phased housing, which is organized to meet the increasing needs of residents as they become older.

However, the most popular and rapidly expanding form of retirement community consists of elder-friendly apartments and supportive services which still allow elders to maintain their independence. It is this kind of setting that is the focus of this research study.

Based on gerontological theory, these retirement communities should provide an ideal housing situation. They offer supportive housing in a less stressful and safer environment. Furthermore, this environment places older persons in a setting where they are more likely to meet people with common values, interests, and backgrounds.

Do retirement communities really provide such a positive environment for their residents? How satisfied are the persons who move into retirement communities with their decision? The overall purpose of the study was to delineate factors which might be useful in understanding the impact of such a major life move. Specifically, the study focuses on the following research questions:

  • How satisfied are the residents of retirement communities with their decision to move into the setting?
  • Does prior knowledge of retirement communities have an impact on later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • Does how long the residents thought about moving have an impact on later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • Is support from friends and family related to later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • Is the amount of stress experienced during the move related to later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • Does the formation of new relationships formed in the community affect later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • Does the activity level in the community affect later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • What are some of the perceived benefits of living in the community and how are they related to later satisfaction with living in such a community?
  • Is there a relationship between gender and satisfaction with living in a retirement community?
  • What were some of the major concerns of residents in making the decision to move?
  • Does the geographic location of their former home have an impact on their satisfaction with retirement community?
  • What suggestions do residents have for potential residents who are considering a move?

Methodology

Research Design: Respondents for this study were drawn from the populations of three retirement facilities in a midwestern city. Two of the facilities are privately owned while the remaining facility is associated with a chain of retirement facilities. At the time of the survey they were the only retirement settings in the community and all had established excellent reputations. The facilities offer similar types of accommodations and activities. The majority of available apartments were spacious and attractive one-bedroom arrangements, although some efficiency and two-bedroom apartments are also available. The costs of the facilities were within the range of middle income elderly.

The data were gathered by means of a questionnaire which was placed in the resident mailboxes. In part because of the length of the questionnaire, all residents received a personal letter from the researcher several days earlier describing the nature and the purpose of the study. Respondents returned the questionnaire directly to the researcher by mail in enclosed self-addressed, stamped envelopes. One hundred and twenty-two usable questionnaires were returned for a 57 percent return rate.

Sample Profile: Seventy-two percent of the respondents were women. The ages ranged from 63 to 95 with a mean age of 81. The respondents had lived in their retirement communities for an average of 3.3 years. The longest had lived there for 11 years. For most (90 percent) this was the first retirement community in which they had lived. Seventy percent lived alone.

Just over three-fourths of the respondents moved to the retirement community from a free standing house while one-fifth moved from another apartment type setting. They had lived in their previous setting for a mean of 28 years. Half had lived in the city where the facilities are located and one-third had previously lived in a contiguous state. Eighty-eight percent have a relative within a one-hour drive and 78 percent have a friend (not in the retirement center) within a one-hour drive.

Findings

How satisfied are the residents of retirement communities with their decision to move into the setting?

Rather than simply asking residents to express their satisfaction with the retirement community, it was decided that a more comprehensive way to ask the question would be to ask them if they would make the same decision again. Moving is a difficult task at best and it was felt that asking if they would make the same decision again would tap this dimension in addition to their satisfaction with their present setting.

Seventy-two percent of the respondents reported that they would "definitely" make the same decision to move into the facility. An additional 22 percent noted that they would "probably" make the same decision. The remaining 6 percent either were not sure if they would make the same decision again or would not make the same decision again.

Does prior knowledge of retirement communities have an impact on later satisfaction with living in such a community?

Many respondents had some indirect prior knowledge of retirement facilities before considering the move themselves. Sixty-five percent personally knew someone living in a retirement facility and 63 percent had personally visited a facility.

Having visited another retirement community before actually considering moving into one (gamma=.23), knowing someone who lived in a retirement community before actually considering moving into one (gamma=.43), and having thought about moving into a retirement community in a general way before actually considering their present retirement community (gamma=.42) were all positively related to being satisfied with the decision.

Does how long the residents thought about moving have an impact on later satisfaction with living in such a community?

For 65 percent of the respondents, thinking about moving into a retirement facility was spurred by a specific event which occurred in their lives. Finding it difficult to keep up their homes was the most frequently cited reason. Other major reasons for considering the move included moving to be near relatives, personal illness, death of a spouse, wanting to prolong independence, a need for security and getting settled in a supportive environment before existing health problems became serious.

The respondents did not make the decision to move lightly. The average respondent reporting thinking about the decision for over 9.4 months, although 19 percent thought about moving for at least two years before making the decision to move.

Length of time residents thought about moving was related to satisfaction with their decision (gamma=.28). Eighty-three percent of the respondents who had thought about the move for longer than a year were satisfied with their decision compared to only 67 percent of the respondent who had thought about the decision for less than 6 months.

Is support from friends and family related to later satisfaction with living in such a community?

In 73 percent of the cases, the closest relative was very supportive of the decision to move, as compared with only 44 percent of the best friends. Only 18 percent reported that someone actually did try to talk them out of moving into the retirement facility. Having the support of a family member was not related to satisfaction with the decision. However, having the support of their best friend was highly related (gamma=.37).

Is the amount of stress experienced during the move related to later satisfaction with living in such a community?

Twenty percent of the respondents found the actual move to the retirement facility either extremely stressful or very stressful. By contrast, 27 percent described their move as not stressful. Twenty-one percent found the stresses of moving were greater than they had expected; 44 percent noted that the level of stress was about what they expected and 35 percent found the move to be less stressful than they thought it would be.

The emotional aspects of leaving the place they had previously lived appeared to be the most stressful aspect of moving. Thirty percent of subjects found this to be either "Very" or "Extremely" stressful. Twenty-nine percent of the subjects found the physical demands of moving to be either "Very" or "Extremely" stressful. Twenty-six percent found the decisions that needed to be made either "Very" or "Extremely" stressful and 21 percent found giving up things they could not take with them to be "Very" or "Extremely" stressful.

Several forms of stress associated with the move were related with satisfaction with the decision. Individuals who found the move less stressful (gamma=.37), and individuals for whom the move was less stressful than they had expected it to be (gamma=.37) were more likely to be satisfied with their decision.

Individuals who perceived the emotional demands of moving as less stressful (gamma=.42), those who found that the moving-related decisions were less stressful (gamma=.36) and those who found it less stressful to give up things (gamma=.27) were more likely to be satisfied with their decision to move into the retirement community.

Does the formation of new relationships in the community affect satisfaction with living in such a community?

Ninety-six percent of the respondents reported that they had made new friends in the retirement community. For the most part, these friendships are not as close for as were relationships with friends they had prior to moving into the retirement facility, although forty percent reported that the new friendships were as close as previous friendships. Ninety-four percent still maintained some contact with their earlier friends. Residents who had made friends they considered close were more satisfied (gamma=.28) with their decision, but meeting people with common interests (gamma=.66) was more highly related to satisfaction with their decision.

Does the activity level in the community affect satisfaction with living in such a community?

The vast majority of residents were satisfied with their level of social activity. Ninety-eight percent of the respondents noted that their level of social activity had met or exceeded their expectations. Thirty-two percent reported that they were more socially active in the retirement facility than they had been in their previous home.

Activity levels varied, but 90 percent felt that their activity level was "just right.” Thirty-eight percent said that their activity level had increased in the year since they moved into the facility. Ninety percent of the residents participated in at least one activity provided by the retirement community.

The greater the extent to which their social activity in the retirement community met their expectations (gamma=.46), the more satisfied they were with their decision. Individuals who were more socially active were more satisfied with their decision (gamma=.22).

What are some of the perceived benefits of living in the community and how are they related to later satisfaction with living in such a community?

The impact of living in the retirement community was perceived in a very positive way by the residents. Seventy-five percent strongly agreed that they felt safer in the retirement community and 65 percent strongly agreed that life was not as strenuous as it had been before they moved. Almost half strongly agreed that they had met people with common interests. Forty percent strongly agreed that their physical health had benefited and 35 percent strongly agreed that their mental health had benefited. Detailed data are presented in Table 1.

Once they were living in the facility, several factors emerged as very strongly related to satisfaction with the decision. Perceiving their life in the retirement community as being not as strenuous as it was in their previous setting (gamma= .51), feeling safer (gamma=.50), feeling that their mental health had benefited (gamma=.52) and feeling that their physical health had benefited (gamma=.50) were all associated with more positive feelings toward their decision.

Is there a relationship between gender and satisfaction with living in a retirement community?

While participation in retirement community sponsored events was high for both men and women, men were more likely to participate (gamma=.56). Men were more likely to report that they felt safer in the retirement community (gamma=.32). Men were more likely to feel the stresses associated with making decisions related to the move (gamma=.20), but somewhat more likely to feel that life is not as strenuous in the retirement community (gamma=.18). Men were more likely to be satisfied with their decision (gamma=.22).

Women were more likely to have a relative who was not supportive of their moving to a retirement community (gamma=.20) and more women than men reported that someone tried to talk them out of moving into the facility (gamma = .40). Women were more likely to have visited a retirement community before they actually considered one themselves (gamma=.30). Women were more likely to find close friends (gamma=.25). The data suggested that women had a somewhat higher activity level in the retirement community than they had in their previous home (gamma=.18).

What were some of the major concerns of residents in making the decision to move?

Respondents recalled a variety of concerns when they were making their decisions. The major concerns in order of frequency with which they were mentioned were concerns about cost, leaving possessions, concerns about having less freedom, leaving friends, concerns about security, fear of not being able to lead an active life, concerns about health care, selling the house and living alone.

Does the geographic location of their former home have an impact on their satisfaction with retirement community?

Individuals who lived in the same city prior to moving into the retirement facility were more likely to be satisfied with their decision (gamma=.32).

What suggestions do residents have for potential residents who are considering a move?

Respondents were given the opportunity to reply to an open-ended question asking what advice they would give to someone considering moving into a retirement community. Over fifty different suggestions were made, some quite idiosyncratic. However, some suggestions were made by many residents and they are presented in Table 3 in order of their frequency. The most frequently volunteered advice was to “move before you have to move.”

Discussion and Summary

Overall Factors: Retirement communities of the kind assessed in this study do indeed appear to be a positive environment for their residents. Overwhelmingly residents were socially active with the vast majority participating in social activities and forming new friendships. Most were satisfied their own level of activity. These factors may well contribute to the feelings of increased physical and mental well-being reported by many of the residents. Overall, residents felt safer, reported meeting people with common interests and in general felt life was not as strenuous.

While leaving their former homes had been stressful, only a fifth of the residents experienced more stress than they had expected as compared with just over a third who experienced less stress. The emotional aspect of leaving their previous home was the most stressful. In most cases family members and friends were supportive of their decision to move to the retirement community, although women were a little more likely to experience opposition than were men.

In general, there was little difference between the experiences of the male residents and the female residents. Men were a little more likely to experience stress during the decision making phase of the move, but were also more likely to emphasize the safety of the retirement community and had slightly higher levels of participation in activities than did the women.

Women were more likely to make close friends in the retirement community. Women were also more likely to have some experience and knowledge of retirement communities prior to thinking about moving into one themselves.

Factors Affecting Satisfaction: A detailed analysis was conducted to determine which factors could be used to predict satisfaction with the decision to move. Having some knowledge of retirement communities prior to moving into the community was associated with increased satisfaction. This relationship could simply reflect a self selection process, but it may also reflect the notion that those with prior knowledge had more realistic expectations of what the setting could provide.

The nature of the larger community was also a factor related to satisfaction. Residents who formerly lived in the community or in a contiguous state tended to be more satisfied with their decision than residents from farther away. Likewise, residents who were satisfied with the larger community were also more likely to be satisfied with their decision. This suggests that the staff members responsible for working with potential residents should emphasize both the retirement community and the desirability of the larger community. This is particularly important when working with potential residents from noncontiguous states. For these potential residents the move may reflect a move into a different geographic and cultural setting and information about the larger community may be most helpful and welcome.

The levels of stress experienced during the move were also predictors of satisfaction. While a retirement community may not be able to do much about easing the emotional aspects of moving, it may be able to provide some advice concerning the decisions involved and reduce some of the physical stresses by suggesting appropriate support systems and helping people implement them.

Once residents have moved into the setting, becoming an active part of the community was an important part of being satisfied. However, this does not necessarily mean high levels of activity. Rather it means participating in the level of activity which is desirable.

Staff may assist the transition of new residents into the retirement community. In entry level interviews they can determine the activity and friendship expectations of the new residents and help them to attain those desirable levels.

Overall, the retirement community appears to provide a positive and supportive environment for its residents. Almost three-fourths of the residents said they would “Definitely” make the same decision again and just over one-fifth said they would “Probably” make the same decision again.

References

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