A medical tsunami struck Marian Martenas’s parents about 10 years ago. First, her father suffered a stroke, followed by her mother’s heart attack. Bob McKeegan would need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. Wife Barbara recovered and could live independently in the couple’s Lancaster apartment. They just couldn’t occupy the same space in any nursing home or retirement center the family investigated.
“It shattered our hearts that they couldn’t be together,” says Martenas, who talked with her three brothers and two sisters about a solution for the incredibly close older couple. Martenas, husband Wayne and son Michael invited the McKeegans to move into their four-bedroom Lititz farmhouse.
The Martenas family moved to two bedrooms upstairs. Barbara McKeegan took over the master bedroom downstairs while Bob lived across the hall in a guest bedroom. The family remodeled a downstairs bathroom for Bob, replacing the tub with a walk-in shower large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and widening doorways around the house.
Barbara lived for four more years; her husband for five. Martenas doesn’t regret the crowded space and occasionally raised voices that came with five people in one house.
“This is what we wanted to do,” she says.
Martenas’s solution may not work for other families. However, it’s one consideration for older residents deciding where to live after retirement. Lancaster has consistently ranked in the top five of U.S. News and World Report’s list of the best places to retire in the country. But, what does living here look like for seniors?
“It all depends on the situation,” says Sheri Snyder, who supervises case workers at the Lancaster County Office of Aging.
The agency offers advice to all and free services to those who qualify by income. Some people have family and supportive neighbors nearby to help them stay in a home. Others may value the ease of moving to a retirement community where others take care of most details.
Coleman and Jean Harris chose the latter. The couple, from Mt. Vernon, moved into an apartment in an independent living section of Willow Valley Communities nine years ago rather than stay in their five-bedroom home.
“We don’t paint, we don’t repair and we don’t fix meals,” says Coleman Harris. “Our days of washing dishes and doing yardwork are over.”
Instead, the couple take advantage of more than 100 available clubs in the community. Jean Harris leads the 55-member Quilting Guild. Both belong to the camera club and often submit photos revolving around a certain theme. Coleman devotes time to a group that helps preserve farmland in Lancaster County.
“We can do a lot of things we never had to chance to do because we were taking care of the house,” Coleman Harris says.
Before making any decisions, people should examine their finances, support network and preferences.
“It’s usually something seniors have already decided before they come to me,” says Marci Miller, a Lancaster elder-law attorney with Gibbel, Kraybil & Hess.
About 18,500 out of 100,500 residents over 65 who live in Lancaster County reside in some sort of care facility, according to figures from Lisa McCraken, who researches senior living for Ziegler, a Chicago-based investment firm.
One main benefit to an all-inclusive retirement community comes from never having to move again as residents transition from independent homes all the way to 24-hour nursing care, with stops at personal care and assisted living.
Miller tells clients to remain realistic about health-care needs and to look for a community they won’t have to leave.
“I counsel families about things to consider so that their preferred housing option can remain as permanent as possible.”
Retirement communities also offer a built-in social life. “Isolation and loneliness are primary reasons why people decline rapidly,” says Brian Rutter, Willow Valley’s chief marketing officer. For instance, the community offers a fencing club, debate organization and sailing group. “We run the gamut.”
“They provide meals, help with daily activities and transportation,” says Allyson Stanton, a licensed social worker and aging lifecare manager in Columbia, Maryland. “It’s one stop for resources.”
Some properties require a large buy-in fee and then provide wide-ranging care as long as monthly dues are paid. Other communities offer a smaller entrance fee but will ask for more money and an increased monthly payment as residents move between levels of care. Residents usually don’t own their homes, and heirs may inherit only a small portion of the initial payment.
Miller tells people to visit as many communities as possible and talk to residents. “Is it a more conservative community? Are televisions allowed? Does it feel too stuffy?”
Stanton advises touring every living situation offered at a community. “Marketing people may want to show you the beautiful lobby or the pool.” See the skilled nursing and assisted living areas, she says. Talk to the director of nursing. Find out the ratio of nurses to patients.
Cost may be one downside to moving to a retirement community. Be prepared to show your financial records and prove that you have enough money saved to pay for 20-25 years of care, Stanton says.
Miller advises having enough money up front to show a community you can pay for skilled nursing for three or four years — about $450,000. Learn about payment options, she says. “Be prepared to make a full and complete financial disclosure.”
Aging in place
Most Lancaster County seniors who downsize stay in their own homes or move in with family. Miller sees an increase in older residents choosing this after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Aging in place in your own home, or in a child’s home, has become a more desirable option since the pandemic because seniors have more freedom to interact with family and friends in person,” she says.
Also, examine your support network, Stanton says. Do you have family and friends in the area? Will you have transportation to doctor appointments, especially if you live in a rural area and have to go into a city? Will you be able to install equipment such as grab bars in a shower or widen doorways for a wheelchair? What about paying for home health care?
Senior living experts say help to stay in a home is available. The county office on aging can send someone to a private home to make recommendations for safe living, Snyder says. Social workers there can answer questions and point residents to free or reduced-cost services.
“There’s no such thing as a dumb question,” she says.
The Lancaster Downtowners, a nonprofit group, provides a support network for those who want to age in place, says executive director Melissa Ressler. About 200 seniors belong to the organization, which charges annual dues based on member income. The agency oversees walking groups, book clubs, supper clubs and educational programs to any senior who doesn’t mind coming to downtown Lancaster.
Members also rely on each other for transportation, meals and even pet babysitting.
Molly McKitterick, 69, says she and husband Allan Eustis, 72, “wanted an adventure” when they retired to Lancaster from Washington, D.C., two years ago without any family or friends nearby They purchased a 3,000-square-foot home in Olde Town.
Joining Lancaster Downtowners provided “an instant social network,” Eustis says. He also volunteers at the organization to provide transportation for people who no longer drive.
They remain realistic though. “We know at some point we won’t be able to stay in this house,” McKitterick says.
Right now, though, life seems wonderful. “I didn’t think it was going to be this perfect,” Eustis says.
The Harrises marvel at how easy life is right now at Willow Valley. The couple travels but no longer has to worry about who will watch the house, water the grass or pick up packages left at the front door.
“We just shut the door, and away we go,” Jean Harris says.