A Big Decision for Seniors: Do I Stay, or Do I Go?

There’s no place like home. That’s the feeling many of us have as we age and need to consider where and how we will live as seniors.

A 2018 AARP survey showed that three out of four adults over age 50 want to age in place — that is, stay in their current homes. However, in that same survey, less than half think that’s a realistic option. The key is to start thinking about your needs and options while you are healthy and still in control of the process.

There is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to the question of whether you should stay or move. There are many variables to consider, everything from your health and finances, to the weather and your grandchildren.

Meet a Retiree Who Decided to Stay

Fran Zeitler has lived in the same house in Princeton for more than half a century, and after considering various options, she decided to stay in place, but that required some extensive remodeling to her two-story, 100-year-old home. She extended her home so that she and her husband Fred could live on one floor. They added a master bedroom suite, a laundry room, and an office, as well as central air conditioning, which she never had before. The second floor is now for their five children and 19 grandchildren.

“It’s very nice to live on one floor and not have to go upstairs,” said Zeitler, now in her 80s. She’s staying in her long-time home because of her connection to the community. She serves on boards and committees in town and does plenty of volunteer work. Also, she has been an active member of Community Without Walls (CWW) for the past 15 years. “The whole premise,” she said, “is that through friendships, they will help you stay in your own home and thrive.”

How Retirement is Changing

Many things have changed over the years, including retirement. A growing number of people can expect that phase of life to last for 30 years or longer. Another different thing is that many more people enter retirement with an active mortgage. Thirty years ago, just one in four homeowners in their late-60s to late-70s had a mortgage; but according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, nearly half do so today.

For some people, that could mean they are trapped in place for the time being; others, who have either paid off their mortgage or built up enough equity, may decide to get out from under the financial burden of their house and downsize to a less expensive home. You should calculate how much you’ll have to spend on a new home (buying or renting), and how much your fixed costs may drop as a result of lower real estate taxes, utility costs, landscaping, and other expenses tied to owning a single-family house. Compare that to the cost of renovating your existing home. Some items, like installing grab bars in the shower or taking steps to make your home less accident-prone, are relatively inexpensive. But other steps, like remodeling a bathroom or installing an elevator, can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Reasons to Move After Retirement (Beyond Finances)

There are many trade-offs to consider beyond the finances. Staying in place allows you to remain in close contact with long-term friends and community groups, while moving can open new social circles.

For empty-nesters looking to move, it’s an opportunity to de-clutter and purge belongings that you haven’t used in years and obtaining an easier, low-maintenance lifestyle with no lawn to cut, snow to shovel, or roof to replace. For some people, the priority is living close to children and grandchildren. Others want to escape the winter weather.

Meet a Retiree Who Decided to Move

Moving is also a chance to reset your lifestyle. Amy Trachtenberg lived in central New Jersey for 40 years, raising her family in a traditional four-bedroom house. But once her husband stopped commuting into Manhattan, new options appeared. They moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath co-op in a high-rise building in center city Philadelphia, about half the size of their suburban home. The cost was less than they sold their house for, and their monthly living expenses have dropped by about one-third.

More than the money though, it’s the lifestyle. “I love this environment,” Trachtenberg said, in talking about the wide array of restaurants, shops, museums, entertainment, and educational options — all of which she can walk to. She uses her car only once or twice a week. “We have moved on to an exciting new chapter in our lives,” she said.

Additional Considerations for Retirement Living

Experts say transportation should be a key consideration in deciding where to spend your senior years, as the time may come that you can no longer drive. In addition to practical matters like food shopping and getting to the doctor, it can also lead to social isolation, which is one of the most serious problems confronting seniors.

A report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies says the number of households with people over 80 will more than double over the next 20 years. Some will age in place, and others will move into places that allow them to continue to live independently. More than one in 10 expect to live with children or other family members, and others will move to more traditional senior living centers.

A recent survey by TD Ameritrade found that 42 percent of Americans plan to downsize in retirement; 25 percent plan on moving to someplace warmer; 17 percent plan to live closer to family; and only 6 percent plan to live in a senior living community.

It can be difficult to think about making major changes if you are faring well right now, but it’s important to think about “what happens if…”.  If you can no longer drive, if you can’t do chores around the house, if you or your spouse develop serious medical issues, if you start to feel the inevitable toll of aging and it reduces your ability to care for yourself… who will help, will you feel happy, and will you be safe?

Different Living Choices for Different People

Fran Zeitler and Amy Trachtenberg made different choices for their golden years. Asked how long she plans to stay in her newly renovated home, Zeitler said, “at least to 120; Fred says longer.”  She adds, “We feel we can live here under any circumstances. We are in good health now and we will take care of each other.”

For Trachtenberg, she’s thrilled about the low stress, low maintenance, active lifestyle, with easy access to all the opportunities the big city has to offer.

Different choices, but they might both be right.

The bottom line is to make conscious, well-informed decisions while you are still in control of the process. Don’t wait until there is a dire need to make a change.

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