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Forward Thinking – Don’t let your home define you

Have you ever given a thought about where and how you want to spend your retirement years? I ask because if you, like me, are getting to a certain age, it’s something you should think about. Now. And if your parent or parents have already reached that age, it’s time to have a discussion with them too. Especially if they are hanging on to the family home.

I don’t usually share this story, but I hope my family’s saga might help change the trajectory yours is starting down and prevent years of frustration, power struggles, tears and financial unrest.

My dad, who turned 94 earlier this month, retired from a distinguished banking career at age 62. He’s a Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award recipient and led the alumni association of the college we both attended and love. He helped start Richmond’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.

My mom, now 89, loved her “banker’s wife” role. She was a 40-plus- year volunteer at a United Methodist retirement home and an avid community advocate.

About 15 years ago, plans were announced for a new independent living, continuing care community near the home they bought in 1965. The new community, very similar to The Heritage at Brentwood, was being built adjacent to the county-owned nursing home and assisted living community.

After the community opened, many of their friends, especially church friends, sold their homes and moved into new apartment or cottage homes to take advantage of the maintenance-free lifestyle complete with the security of life care should it ever be needed.

Dad was ready to give up the family house, a tri-level with a half-acre yard, and would have readily moved. But Mom “wasn’t ready.” She would never be ready.

A few years later, Dad began having memory issues. My brothers made one last stab at helping them facilitate a move to the nearby CCRC. They met with the marketing director to determine what size home Mom and Dad could afford, given the Entrance Payment and monthly fees. When my younger brother was soon after diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, his greatest wish before he died was to see our parents situated in a community they could both live their best lives going forward. Mom continued to dig in her heels.

Meanwhile, their house needed painting, again. There was a major issue in the sewer line. The top oven of the double oven in which Mom baked literally hundreds of pound cakes a year died. Basic maintenance became a chore. Thousands of dollars were spent each year on yardwork. There were also health issues, routine and otherwise in addition to Dad’s increasing dementia.

As the years passed, their opportunity to make a move together diminished. Several years ago, we moved Dad into a wonderful memory care facility. It cost $6,000-plus a month.

Do you know how fast a bank account diminishes when you pay $6,000 a month out of pocket – on top of your home’s regular and emergency monthly costs? The answer is fast.

If Mom and Dad had made the move to the life-care community, Mom could have remained in their apartment when the time came for Dad to move to its memory care unit at little additional monthly cost. If he – or she or both — had needed to move into the skilled nursing facility, they would still be paying the same monthly fee instead of the $12,000 or more private pay cost – times two if both needed it. Mom’s long-term care insurance would help cover her costs but far from the total amount.

But they didn’t.

A year ago, Mom finally made the move into a one-story home in an age-restricted community. She now admits she should have done it far earlier.

After a fall and subsequent hospitalization nearly 10 months ago, Dad is home with her with the help of home-health care and hospice. But the monthly costs of home care – more than the cost of his memory care facility — remain unsustainable unless or until Dad is moved to a Medicaid-eligible nursing home or passes.

Mom tears up every time she talks about it. “We should have moved earlier. Your dad would be heartbroken to know what our situation is,” she has said again and again. “We had no idea we might run out of money.”

It’s been a difficult, stressful and heartbreaking situation for my family. Which is why my husband and I have worked with a financial planner with the goal of spending our golden years in a life-care community – and making the move long before we need to. We’ll do it because we want to, and because it’s the best gift we can give our sons.

Susan Leathers is a semi-retired, Brentwood-based journalist with a keen interest in aging issues. Send suggestions for future columns to [email protected].

This monthly column is sponsored by The Heritage at Brentwood, Williamson County’s only LifeCare® community offering independent villa, garden villa and apartment homes on 48 acres – with the assurance of a full continuum of short- or long-term care right on-site if ever needed. For more information, call 615-507-2686 or visit