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How to Make a Smooth Transition to a Retirement Community

Maryalene LaPonsie

Whether you have to move or you want to move, settling into a retirement community can be a major adjustment. "It's more than picking furnishings," says Monique Eliezer, chief officer of sales, marketing and strategy for Ingleside retirement communities. To make a successful transition, senior living experts recommend spending less time worrying about floor plans and more time doing the following:

[Read: 8 Things Your Retirement Community Won't Tell You.]

Consider your future needs. As seniors age, they often need more services. Patrick Simasko, principle of Simasko Law in Mount Clemens, Michigan, urges his clients to think long term. That means having a plan to pay for more intensive care in the future or selecting a community where different levels of care are offered on the same campus. He also encourages people not to write off the idea that they might someday need advanced care. "Every nursing home is full of moms who were never going into a nursing home," Simasko says.

Take more than a tour. Vassar Byrd, CEO of Rose Villa Senior Living, says seniors need to be doing more than talking to the marketing staff before selecting their new home. "A lot of places have similar services, but they feel totally different," she says. Instead, ask to participate in community activities and talk to as many current residents as possible.

Then, once seniors have decided on a community, they should begin to integrate with it immediately. "The relationship should start as soon as they reserve their apartment," Eliezer says. Stopping by for meals is one common way many people get to know a community and its residents prior to the date they physically move in.

Read the fine print. Carefully read the contract and residential agreements. Understand the services offered, your obligations and the bottom-line costs involved before signing anything.

Understand how your routine will change. Moving into a retirement community often means sharing spaces with other residents and adapting to new routines. For instance, rather than eating whenever you'd like, there may be scheduled meal times. Byrd says these changes can be an adjustment for people who are used to living on their own.

Socialize your dog. Not only do people need to be prepared for lifestyle changes, but their pets may, too. Dogs, in particular, may need some extra help to act appropriately in a communal setting. Byrd notes Rose Villa has about 50 dogs on its campus, and a pet owner support team is available to help these animals successfully settle into their new environment.

[Read: 10 Factors to Consider Before Moving to a Retirement Community.]

Don't sell the house too quickly. Simasko says children often sell the family home after mom and dad move into a retirement community. That could be a mistake. It's not because the parents might want to move back, but because "you just converted a protected asset," Simasko says. Seniors who need nursing home care and can't afford it can apply for Medicaid coverage. While a home is excluded from assets when determining Medicaid eligibility, cash and other investments are not. That means a family would have to deplete all proceeds from the sale of the house before Medicaid coverage could begin. If the house has already been sold, Simasko says it may be possible to use the money to purchase a new home and reestablish residency.

Don't try to squeeze all your stuff into a new space. Showing up to your new -- and likely smaller -- space with everything from your old home is a mistake. However, don't look at downsizing and decluttering as a negative. "The opportunity to rethink your lifestyle and living space can be a fun thing," Byrd says.

Get your paperwork in order. Everyone should have a power of attorney and a health care designee in place, but it is especially important before moving to a senior living community. Make sure the management knows who you've named so they can contact that person in the event of an emergency.

Simasko says many people choose an adult child for these roles, and seniors should make their decision carefully. "You want a good, trusting kid," he says. A durable power of attorney will have access to all your finances. "If it's the bad kid, there goes all the money."

[See: 10 Retirement Hot Spots in the U.S.]

Move sooner rather than later. Senior living experts say the best way to ensure a smooth transition is to make the move early. "It's horrible when someone has to move after a traumatic experience," Eliezer says. If people wait until a hospitalization, illness or injury forces them out of their home, they may find they have limited options or don't have time to fully explore the available communities. By starting early, people can move on their own terms into a community that is the best fit for them.

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