If you or a loved one is considering their senior living options, you likely have begun doing research on retirement communities. Or perhaps you have a loved one in need of long-term care or memory care and staying in the home will not be safe for much longer. With all of the differing communities and facilities available (especially in larger cities), it can be a lot to take in so the decision process can take some time. This varies from one person to another because some senior living decisions are needs-based and move much quicker, while others are more preference-based and can take months or even years. Once you home in on a few specific places that meet your criteria, you may want to consider getting your name on their waiting lists. Many facilities, particularly assisted living or nursing care facilities, are likely to have one.
The timing conundrum
Ideally, one should not wait until the day they need to move to begin planning. If for no other reason, this can be problematic because of the very subject I am addressing here. There could be a wait list for the facility you like best. But one of the challenges of planning ahead for long-term care housing needs is that it can be hard to foresee exactly when you will need it–it could happen slowly with the natural aging process or the progression of a degenerative disease, or it can occur quickly with an illness or injury. So it is advisable to get on three or four waiting lists if you are looking at assisted living or a long-term care facility for yourself or a family member; this way, when the time comes and you need care, you will hopefully be near the top of the list for at least one facility.
If you are eyeing a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, also known as a life plan community) another consideration is that many of these communities require that new residents be able to “walk in,” that is, they must be relatively able-bodied when they first move to the community. In fact, many life plan communities have a very active base of residents who live independently today, but want to be someplace where care is available to them on site when needed. Most continuing care retirement communities maintain an assisted living and/or healthcare center in addition to offering independent living. Therefore, to my point above, residents moving into a CCRC do not necessarily know when or how much care they may eventually need.
How retirement community waiting lists work
Most communities or facilities will require a deposit in order to add your name to their wait list; the amount can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. In some communities, this deposit may be refundable if you change your mind or get into another facility first; always ask about the waiting list refund policy. As it relates to assisted living facilities in particular, sometime the refund will only be refunded in the event that the resident is unable to move into the facility for healthcare reasons.
Many CCRCs also have waiting lists. Yet, the waiting lists for CCRCs are not necessarily for assisted living or nursing care because, as I mentioned, CCRCs provide access to a full continuum of care with new residents first moving into independent living. When adding your name to a CCRC or assisted living list, you will typically specify which type of unit you desire, e.g., a patio home, a 1 or 2-bedroom apartment, a single-occupancy room, etc. When a resident living in your desired unit type moves out- often because their needs have progressed and they are transferring into the on-site assisted living or healthcare facility- then the unit will become available to you.
There are two common forms of wait lists that you will find at various facilities.
The open-ended wait list is the more flexible of the two types. When your name reaches the top of the list, you are not required to move in immediately; you can keep your top position on the list and wait until the next desired unit opens up. The challenge with this type of list is that it gives an inexact picture of how many people are actually ready to move to the community so it can take a long time for your name to come to the top slot.
Some facilities have a “three strike rule” wait list. As the name might suggest, for these communities, if you get to the top of the list and turn down that opening three times, you get bumped back to the bottom of the list. You will even run across a few communities that have a one strike rule for their lists.
Once you are on the waiting list, CCRCs or other retirement communities frequently will offer a variety of perks to future residents–maybe unlimited use of their pool and exercise facility, or access to other community events and activities. In fact, a growing number of CCRCs are beginning to call their wait list a “membership.” I would encourage residents-to-be to take advantage of this benefit as it allows you to begin the process of assimilating into the community and meeting future neighbors, even before you live there.
It is also good to be aware that some communities will have an internal waiting list. If you find yourself in a situation where you need (or want) to move into the community and your preferred unit is not available–forcing you to settle for your second or third choice–you can go ahead and move in but stay on the internal list and wait for your desired unit-type to open up. Existing residents will typically get priority over non-residents, so you may be able to get your preference relatively quickly, though you may be required to pay a transfer fee or pay the additional cost if your desired residence is more expensive. Be sure you ask about any charges you will incur.
Your waiting list checklist
Before you get on a waiting list:
- Research, research, research so you are as educated as possible about your senior living options and various scenarios. Be sure you understand the details of the residency contract and what your fees include.
- Take a tour of your top contenders; you may find that two or three really stand out when you visit them in person, while others may be easy to eliminate.
- Ask as many questions as you can about the community or facility, their contract types, and their waiting list policies (including refunds).
After you get on a waiting list:
- Relax. You have made a major life decision to plan for your future; it will likely feel like a tremendous load has been lifted.
- Begin thinking about organizing your home; consider what you will and will not be able to take with you when the time comes to move.
- Begin thinking about when you will be ready; consider making a list of determining factors such as age, overall health (including ability to safely drive), current housing situation, savings and assets, family considerations, etc.
- Take advantage of any perks offered by the community to future residents who are on the waiting list; you will grow more comfortable with the surroundings and meet new friends too.
Adding your name to retirement community and assisted living facility waiting lists is one of the ways you can plan for your future. This step can give you and your loved ones a level of security, knowing that you will be well-cared for as you age.