Retirement communities: Where the heart is

Is it for us? Would a retirement community lifestyle suit us? How does it work out for the thousands that choose to make the move? I asked residents that question in a dozen or so retirement communities I visited recently. I was in for some surprises.

This, after all, is new territory. A generation ago, when they left the workplace, people either stayed put, moved into an apartment or smaller house, opted for the cottage or perhaps even went south for the winter. Now the choices are infinite — from picturesque P.E.I. to balmy Vancouver Island — without sacrificing any of the comforts we’re used to.

How’s the experiment going? Remarkably well. Nearly everyone I spoke to is blissfully content with their new surroundings. And this satisfaction is evident right across the board, from low-cost modular home parks to up-scale, clubby gated communities.

The trick is to find what suits you.

Modular homes

Bill and Fiona Turner hunted long and hard for their perfect community, and found it at the Royal Oak Estates, a modular home development tucked away in a corner of Cookstown, a pretty town 45 minutes north of Toronto.

Facilities are minim, but that did not worry Fiona, 70, and Bill, 69. “We aren’t joiners,” says Fiona. What pleased them was that a good library is within walking distance and shops are nearby. And the price was right: homes at Royal Oak today cost $80,000 to $104,000 (partly because homeowners pay $400 a month to lease their lots).

Their one-level home is ideal for Fiona, who has had knee operations — and backs on to open land where they watch hawks and a friendly rabbit. Some of their neighbours, says Fiona, complain there isn’t enough to do. “But we’re so busy we wonder how we ever had time to work.”

Gated communities

Just as content are Barb and John Heard who recently moved into a loft bungalow at Swan Lake Village, an architectural gem located in Markham, on the outskirts of Toronto, with a lakeside setting that could hardly be more different from Royal Oak Estates.

The Heards’ 2,200-square foot home cost over $400,000. Involvement was exactly what this couple was looking for.

As soon as they moved in, Barbara threw a cocktail party for other newcomers on the street. They’re now part of a bridge marathon with 25 other couples, and Barb can’t wait for the indoor pool and 18-hole putting course to be finished.

“We were living in a condominium apartment,” says Barb, “but there was no sense of community. No one spoke.”

Although gated communities like Swan Lake have been criticized by some as overly insular, John, 70, and Barb, 65, like the feeling of security and purchased knowing their place would be safe if, as in the past, they spent winters down south.

Too many restrictions?

Jack Coopman, 78, living at Heritage Village, in Vineland, Ont. in the Niagara Peninsula, says his wife, Carol, still misses the garden they had at their previous home, though she could no longer keep it up. “Some people,” he says, breaking off from a game of pool, “just say they won’t move until they absolutely have to — and that’s a mistake.”

Not everyone, however, is completely happy with the retirement community lifestyle. “I don’t like it here,” says the first man I talked to at Leacock. Why? “One word: restrictions!”

Like any condo, there are rules and regulations about what owners can do to the outside of their properties, and this man had undergone a run-in with the developer over planting trees. Why doesn’t he move? “I don’t think I would get my money out,” he says.

Mixed reactions

Couples don’t always see eye-to-eye about their retirement home choice either. At Black Creek, a gated modular home development near Niagara Falls, Ont., Bill Murray tells of the shock he had when he was laid off at age 57 after 39 years at the same firm.

At his wife, Thelma’s, suggestion, they put their house in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, on the market and went looking for a cheaper alternative. They had an $80,000 cushion after buying their double-size two-bedroom home at Black Creek — with en suite Jacuzzi that their five grandchildren love.

Bill loves sitting in the four-seasons room they’ve added on, watching the stars at night, However, when Thelma, it turns out, has reservations. She loves the range of social activities at Black Creek, but objects to paying the $400 a month rental fee for their land-lease lot. She’d prefer to move to a retirement community where they would own their lot and be nearer their grandchildren.

But 32 out of the 200 Black Creek homes are on the resale market, most for about $20,000 or $30,000 less than new units cost. “We haven’t a hope in hell of getting what we paid. And he’s not moving,” she says with a nod in Bill’s direction.

Security and companionship

It’s a theme you hear in every retirement community — neighbours who have time for each other. Perhaps it’s the best medicine of all for a long and healthy life.

“I lived on my old street for 37 years,” Lorraine MacGregor recalls, “but people were out working and didn’t have time to say more than ‘Hello.'”

She’s sitting in her friend, Shirley McCases’, condominium apartment at Briar Hill, a stunning new community near Alliston. They almost have to pinch themselves to believe they’re really looking out on this view of trees, rolling countryside and a golf course.

“It was like some force drew me here,” says Shirley. “It’s like living in a resort.” The women, each with her own apartment, are typical of many singles, most of them women, seeking security and companionship in these new communities.

Down the hill in her new $189,000 home overlooking the twelfth hole, Heather Roylance is alone today. Her engineer husband, Cam, 63, still works part-time from home, and is on a business trip.

“I thought it would be quite a wrench moving from our old home,” says Heather. “We had lived there 27 years. But I went back the next day and it was just an empty house.”

Their grandchildren love the new place, with its loft, open spaces and walkout basement, while Cam and Heather make good use of the fitness centre at the adjoining Nottawasaga Inn. Their old home needed work; in the new place, their $165 condo fee includes snow-clearing, grass-cutting, exterior care and even window cleaning.

The country life

Equally happy, it seems, are people who reject the elaborate recreational facilities and opt for back-to-nature. The Barrows had lived in some Ontario’s beauty spots during Dave’s career with provincial parks. But when he took early retirement and they went looking for a place to settle, they found many of these Shangri-las were crowded and over-developed.

Instead, they found their little bit of paradise on the remote and starkly beautiful Bruce Peninsula at a development called Lakewood.

Although promoted to 50-plussers, Lakewood also has young families. “We didn’t feel a traditional retirement community was for us,” says Dave, 55. “We enjoy seeing kids around,” says wife Laureen. “I also love the idea we have nearly a two-acre lot with trees,” she says. They had their low-maintenance 1,200 square foot house custom built, total cost $154,000, enjoy walking on six miles of trails and lakeside boardwalk, and, in summer, spending time at nearby provincial parks. The neighbours? “They’re just fabulous,” says Laureen.

If you want to keep it really simple, you can buy a comfortable retirement home for remarkably little today in Canada’s modular home parks.

Units at Georgian Glen Estates in Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay, for instance, cost less than $50,000 plus about $400 a month for taxes and land lease.

There’s no clubhouse, but the display of plaques on the wall at Ric and Carole Hawley’s place attest to their community involvement. He’s in the Kinsmen, she’s a Lioness, and living in a small town, says Ric, makes it easy to get involved: “How many towns are there where the mayor fills up your gas tank!”

Wasaga can be noisy and crowded on summer long weekends, and residents learn to do their shopping at other times. Winters they have it to themselves, and Carole, Ric and their family said goodbye to the old century last Dec. 31 gathered in a tent for a barbecue on the beach. It was wonderful.

Who says the retirement years can’t be golden?