Reimagining Home

All through our lives, we make changes. If we’re fortunate, we start out in a loving, safe home. We eventually grow up and move away, for school or military service or a job. We start careers and get our first apartments, building a home with yard-sale furniture and a few mementos from childhood. We get married and make a home together. And on it goes.

As we navigate life changes, we redefine our physical home, each time creating a place to feel safe and comfortable. The changes we make and homes we choose in later life can be as exciting as those we make in our earlier decades—and every bit as new.

Think about what’s important as we age. Maybe you’d like to make new friends, try new activities, travel more, or take interesting classes. You might want to be done with housework and home maintenance or feel that having someone else cook for you would be a dream come true. You could be thinking about needing extra help at some point. Or perhaps it’s just time for a new adventure. Here are some examples of what’s out there.

55+ housing communities for “active adults”

If you’re looking for high-end fun, there are many resort-like planned communities with amenities such as tennis courts, pools, golf courses, spas, fitness centers, a club house, restaurants, maybe a ballroom—basically, lots of great activities. Residents buy a home and pay ongoing homeowners association dues for maintenance of common areas and those amazing amenities. Home prices range from the high $100,000s to low millions, depending on the location and style of the community. It’s important to ask what types of regulations or restrictions there might be, including on resale of houses.

Age-restricted apartment buildings

Apartment communities for older adults (55+, sometimes older) may offer just the basics or include a range of amenities like fitness centers, dining options, and garage parking. Monthly rents in Western Washington range from around $800 to $1,700 and up, depending on location and what’s offered. Ask whether the rent includes utilities.

An example is the Savoy Lake City, designed specifically for people over 62. The new North Seattle complex is pet friendly, with a fitness center, bistro pub, rooftop deck, and common spaces for meetings or to entertain friends. Staff is available for help when needed, and social interaction among residents is encouraged.

The Senior Housing Assistance Group, another major presence in this category, has more than two dozen locations in Western Washington. Most SHAG communities are for people of modest means, but a few have no income restrictions.

Communities with multiple levels of services

Many apartment and condo-style retirement communities offer a mix of graduated care options, from no assistance to skilled nursing care. Some are for-profit, some not-for-profit, and many have a mission to maintain. For people who are thinking long-term, this can be a good choice.

Amenities to look for include parking, 24-hour staff, dining rooms or restaurants, housekeeping and linen services, transportation for groups or individuals, beauty salons, massage therapy, fitness centers, swimming pools and spas, wellness classes, libraries, media rooms, and social activities. Within each apartment, there may be a washer and dryer, cable TV and internet access, and an emergency call system. Some communities are pet-friendly. Some describe themselves as a cruise ship on land.

Monthly rates vary, depending on location, amenities, and the size of an individual residence. Most communities offer studio, one, two, or three-bedroom apartments; some offer separate cottages. In the Seattle area, the range is approximately $600 to $9,000 per month. Some communities offer varying price levels based on the number of meals included in an individual plan. Assistance or skilled care will add to the fees.

Ida Culver House Broadview, opened in 1990, is part of Era Living, a mission-centered, family-owned local company. The mission: to respect and honor older adults by enhancing the quality of their lives. Ida Culver House does that with a beautiful garden setting and views from many windows. Volunteers in the resident guide program act as mentors to newcomers, introducing them to the facility and to other residents.

In addition to independent living, levels of care at Ida Culver include assisted living, short-term rehabilitation, long-term skilled nursing care, and skilled memory care.

Many residents come in as couples. Eleanor and Mary lived together for 50 years, sharing life, love, and work. Then, as they grew older, Mary needed some physical assistance that Eleanor couldn’t provide. It was time to look for a new home, and they found it at Ida Culver House. Eventually, Eleanor developed Alzheimer’s and went into specialized memory care on campus. Although they don’t share an apartment anymore, they can visit each other every day. “She still recognizes me, I think,” Mary says. “She’s happy when we’re together.”

Popular communities with a lot to offer usually have a waiting list. Karli Christiansen, community relations director for Ida Culver, suggests, “Do research, do it early; join some wait lists and get priority for choices.”

Another example is Merrill Gardens Burien, which has a large independent clientele. It’s located in the heart of Burien Town Square, so residents can easily walk to stores, restaurants, parks, the library, and the farmer’s market. There’s a complimentary happy hour every Friday, open to friends and families as well as all residents.

Friendships and romances happen here, another interesting reason to think about joining a community rather than living alone in a house. You’ll get to know people you might never meet otherwise.

Merrill Gardens Burien community relations manager Ana Burnes advises people to pay attention to the “feel” of the communities they visit. Many places offer the same things, but when you walk in the door, you want to sense a particular atmosphere that makes it right for you.

Life Plan communities

Life Plan communities, also known as Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC), have a specific definition: Age-restricted properties that include a combination of independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing services (or independent living and skilled nursing) available to residents all on one campus.

These communities will offer care for the rest of your life, with an emphasis on an active lifestyle and community connections. They are similar to places like Ida Culver and Merrill Gardens, offering the same types of amenities and services. Some are for-profit, some non-profit. The difference is mostly in the pricing structure and the guarantee of care.

Life Plan communities vary, but there’s a basic structure: an entrance fee, which may be non-refundable or refundable, and a monthly fee. Higher entrance fees generally mean lower monthly fees, which might not rise when or if skilled nursing care becomes necessary. Entry fees range from approximately $30,000 to $1,000,000, depending on the location, the style of the community, services, and amenities. Monthly fees in the Seattle area range from approximately $800 to $4,500. If two people are living together, a second entrance fee and monthly fee may be added.

The contracts for Life Plan communities vary quite a bit and can be confusing; it’s a good idea to consult your attorney or financial advisor before you sign one.

Life Plan communities encourage prospective residents to think about their options earlier than other places offering assisted or skilled care. There may be a health requirement to move in, and residents start by living independently.

Horizon House is a Life Plan community in downtown Seattle, for adults over 62. The emphasis here is on living an active lifestyle, while offering assisted living and memory care to help maintain that quality of life. The majority of activities at Horizon House are initiated and managed by residents, many of whom also volunteer in the Seattle community. The fitness center is always open, and a wellness team works with residents who want or need a personal exercise program.

The Hearthstone at Green Lake in Seattle has a focus on healthy living and a variety of pet-friendly residential options. As health needs change, residents have access to assisted living, short-term rehab, physical therapy, memory support, and skilled nursing care.

As a non-profit CCRC, The Hearthstone re-invests profits after operating expenses into improving residential life. And there’s a very reassuring promise to all those who live here: “If you are unable to pay your monthly fees through no fault of your own, The Hearthstone covers those expenses so you can stay where you are.”


Shelly Parks had a career in senior housing, working in marketing and sales. She had a great appreciation for that world, but questions kept popping up: How do we do it better? Are there other ways to live, to grow older in a more proactive way? To socialize, make friends, and live lighter on the planet? Cohousing is one option that meets those goals.

Cohousing members commit to creating a strong community. Each individual or family owns a private home, built around shared space that will facilitate social interaction between neighbors. There’s usually a common house with a kitchen, where residents eat together a few times a week. There may be guest rooms in the common house, and areas for meetings or parties. Residents share the costs of common space and maintenance. Decisions made by the entire group include the physical design of the community, which could be separate cottages or townhouses; in the city, it might be a condo building. It’s not an inexpensive process if the community is built from scratch, or if it’s a major remodel of an existing apartment building, so it’s important to establish a budget early on.

While cohousing is often intergenerational, many proponents have a particular interest in age-specific communities. Older adults may have very different ideas of what works than younger people do. It’s a little bit like a college dorm: You’re in the same place in life with everyone around you; you may have similar interests; and you probably understand how people think. But intergenerational contact is part of the outer circle of senior cohousing. Adult children and grandchildren are welcome, and the whole community gets to know them.

More than 20 cohousing communities have begun in Washington state, and many are full before they open. When members move away or die, each community has its own plan for how new residents join. Most keep a waiting list, encouraging interested people to get to know the community before a vacancy occurs.

The optimum size for cohousing, both financially and socially, is about 30 households, approximately 20 to 35 people. Monthly meetings provide discussion and decision-making opportunities. Everyone needs to commit to being a good neighbor; listening, caring, and communicating are key. Learning to deal with potential conflicts in a productive way is essential.

Shelly Parks describes it as an old-fashioned neighborhood: messy at times; imperfect at times, but a great community that supports its members. She and her husband plan to pursue cohousing with a group that is searching for land in the Skagit Valley.

Tiny houses

You’ve probably seen them, online if not in person: adorable, cozy little houses that make good use of every inch of space. They’re often on wheels for easy moving.

Pat Rasmussen, 72, of Olympia saw a tiny house that a friend had built for himself and his family. She thought, “Yes! I want something warm and comfortable like that.” Pat creates permaculture farms, so she likes the idea of a home she can move when she’s working at a new place. She plans to have solar panels on her roof, and hemp insulation, so she won’t need a heater. She’ll have two lofts, one at each end, where her grandchildren can sleep when they visit. She’s designing it with a local builder who specializes in tiny homes. Although only about 192 square feet, Pat says it will hold everything she needs.

As Pat shared her plans, she found that others were excited about the idea. They discovered there were permitting issues in Olympia, so a group of tiny home supporters are working with the city to meet building codes.

Some people may enjoy having a tiny home on their children’s property, so they can be close by but not actually living together. One of Pat’s friends is planning to offer space on her large lot for four or five tiny homes for older women. They could provide a tiny house for a shared caregiver, too. Or maybe, says her friend, she’ll build a tiny home for herself, move out of her big house, and join the other ladies on the land.

New ideas for traditional retirement communities

Wesley (formerly Wesley Homes) is a non-profit, faith-based organization with a mission to meet the social, physical, and spiritual needs of the people who call Wesley home, as well as serve older adults in the surrounding community.

In addition to offering cottages, brownstones, or apartments at their Des Moines location, Wesley Health & Home Care provides services for people who want to continue living in their homes off campus. Sometimes it’s medical care. Sometimes it’s social; caregivers have helped a man put scrapbooks together and escorted a woman flying to a family wedding in Arizona. Hospice care is available as well.

Wesley U is a continuing education program at Wesley Des Moines. Classes are inexpensive and available to both residents and outside community members. There’s even a resident-run TV station.

In partnership with Highline College, Wesley Des Moines has created an intergenerational program. Highline identified students in need of housing, then Wesley chose five of them to live on campus for inexpensive rent in exchange for 10 volunteer hours a week working with residents. Assistance with technology is a large part of their volunteer service.

At the other end of education, two preschools meet at Wesley Des Moines. Residents love being around the children, and the children learn and benefit from their adopted grandparents.

As you can see from the many options noted above, creative housing is all about choice for people who love life. Challenge yourself a bit; imagine where you could be and how you could be living. Life may have a new adventure in store for you.

Priscilla Charlie Hinckley has been a writer and producer in Seattle television and video for 35 years, with a primary interest in stories covering health and medicine, women’s and children’s issues, social justice, and education. She enjoys taking a light-hearted approach to serious topics.


Questions to ask before you make a move

Will the available services and amenities give you the type of life you want? Ask yourself: “Will there be activities I enjoy? Will I find friends? Can I bring my pet?”

Are there guest apartments? Can I invite guests for dinner?

Be sure you know about and understand all fees. Also ask about staff turnover and how long the executive director has been there. Longevity of staff and leadership speaks to the culture of the company and how it treats people.

A few more notes about the cost

In Washington, 74 percent of people pay for independent or assisted living with private funds, according to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. The rest are eligible for Medicaid services. However, Medicaid does not cover all the housing costs beyond the services themselves, and even facilities that are Medicaid-contracted are not required to accept everyone who needs Medicaid to pay part of the costs. If you have concerns about finances when choosing a community, ask what the policy is if you should eventually need to use Medicaid.

Medicare does not cover independent or assisted living costs. Medicare generally doesn’t cover long-term care but does cover short-term nursing home care following a hospital stay. Long-term skilled nursing care and memory care may be covered by Medicaid in Washington.

For more information, contact your local senior services office or a business geared to helping people explore their options.


Discussion1 Comment

  1. Priscilla,

    Would you be interested in doing a more in-depth piece of Senior Cohousing? McCamant & Durrett Architects would like to send you our new book, “Senior Cohousing Primer: Recent Examples & New Projects”, for review. We’d also like to invite you to our upcoming Senior Cohousing Weekend Intensive in Bainbridge Island, WA June 15 -17. Giving your readership more comprehensive information on Senior Cohousing will better set them up for aging successfully.

    Please let me know where I can send the book. I look forward to speaking with you soon.

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