Easing The Road To Retirement

Assisted-living And Retirement Communities Feel Pinch Of Recession, Offer Seniors Financial Incentives To Move In

August 23, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,andrea.walker@baltsun.com

It's the time in life people spend years working and saving to reach.

The time when they get to the age where they can stop working, tap into their 401(k) accounts, sell their homes and move into a retirement community. Finally, someone else can mow the lawn and fix the toilet when it breaks.

Or maybe, they can't move around as much by themselves anymore and choose to live in an assisted-living center where they can get help with basic needs.

But seniors are feeling the pain of the recession just like everyone else. And like the rest of the housing market, retirement homes and assisted-living centers are dealing with the pressure of the mortgage crisis, although they say there is some glimpse of improvement.

Vacancy rates are up at retirement homes and senior centers across the country. The occupancy rates reached the high 80s in some communities during the recession when they were once in the mid- to high 90s, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America.

Retirement communities are responding by offering extra financial incentive to help with the transition.

Some are offering services to help seniors sell their homes. Others have become more lenient on move-in fees and other financial help.

They have also had to play a larger role in easing people's fears. Many seniors and their families are afraid to make major financial changes in their lives because of the uncertainty of the economy.

"One thing we hear a lot from people is, " 'I can't afford it,' or 'I am just waiting this economy out,' " said Warren Naviasky, director of marketing and sales for Life Care Services, which owns the Blakehurst, North Oaks, Vantage House and Collington retirement communities in the Baltimore area.

Tom Neubauer, executive vice president for sales at Erickson Retirement Communities, said, "We are having to work harder, like every other business."

The trouble started for seniors when the stock market plummeted, sending the values of investment and retirement portfolios falling. Retirees were left with less money to live on. Housing prices also plunged. Retirees depending on selling their homes to finance a move into a retirement community suddenly found they wouldn't make enough of a profit to do that as home values fell.

Naviasky said the vacancy rates at Life Care Services properties vary depending on the area, but overall there has been a rise. He said some of the communities are offering reduced entrance fees and giving people more time to move in to lure retirees back to the market.

Erickson Retirement Communities began a "Realty and Moving Services" program two years ago in Michigan when the economy began to tank there because of the struggling auto industry. It expanded the program to the rest of its campuses, including two in the Baltimore area, as the economy worsened elsewhere.

The company has laid off more than 300 people since January and has halted new growth plans. It recently dropped plans to buy and develop up to 188 acres of historic Doughoregan Manor in Howard County as a 2,000-unit senior living complex.

The company said it has managed to turn reluctant seniors into Erickson residents with the moving program. Under the program, Erickson helps potential residents through the entire home-selling process, including staging the home, finding a real estate agent and appraising the home. The Realtors are able to help seniors price their home so it will sell. The company will also work to offer discounts on fees to make the math work.

"We're keeping customers from canceling their sale or getting cold feet and hitting the eject button," Neubauer said.

Lighthouse Senior Living, which has two centers in the area, said it is trying to make prospective buyers more aware of the incentives available, including a federal housing allowance for veterans. The company has also been more flexible with move-in fees.

Sharon Grosskopf, executive director at Lighthouse Senior Living, said that many of its potential buyers are living with family members who are choosing to keep them at home a little longer because of the economy.

"When you have a decision-maker afraid of losing their job or being underemployed, they're making the decision to have their family members stay at home a little longer," Grosskopf said.

Executives from the senior living communities said some seniors could afford to move into their communities, but talk of the economy makes them reluctant. The programs often help them realize they have more equity in their homes than they believed.

"Some folks do have significant equity in their home," Naviasky said. "They might not get what they could a couple of years ago, but houses are still selling. An important part of our process now is really to sit down and educate our clients."

The market has started to improve some, senior housing executives said. They have started to get more phone inquiries and people are seeming less anxious about the economy. The stock market has also started to improve, helping retirement portfolios.

"There certainly is some indication that things are loosening up," said Mark Pressman, executive director of North Oaks, which is owned by Life Care Services and where vacancy rates are up about 5 percent. "There is more movement than there was a year ago."

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