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Senior Citizens: Their Fears, Hopes and Questions about Housing Options

Introduction

There comes a time in the lives of many seniors when staying in their current home is no longer a safe or wise choice. It may be because the stairs have become more difficult or impossible to negotiate. It might be that the general upkeep of the house has become overwhelming. Or it may simply be because they’re experiencing declining health. Sadly, too many seniors continue to live in homes which do not meet their physical and/or mental needs. The reasons turn out to be a number of seniors’ fears of selling homes.

I have been a Realtor in the Metro Milwaukee area for over 30 years and am a Senior Real Estate Specialist – that is, a specialist in helping senior citizens to make appropriate housing decisions. I have been in the homes of hundreds of seniors, listening to their stories and watching their faces. In too many cases, those faces have painted a picture of fear and frustration. I needed to get to the root causes of their trepidations, hopes and desires. I wanted to know what seniors were really thinking about when it comes to such an important aspect of their lives – their home! Why were they staying in their homes when it was obvious a move should be made? How can we help our parents? When do we know we’ve done enough when we’re guiding our parents in the right direction?

Senior Fears of Selling Homes

I decided to survey my senior clients who were still in their homes. The majority of the respondents had attended a “moving seminar.” The seminars provide information regarding affordability of senior housing, downsizing and the process of selling their home and moving. Most of the seniors were ages 72-83 years old.

Seven hundred surveys were distributed. Statistically, I expected to get back 1%, or seven. However, I received about 10% — 70! The questions were open ended (subjective) with no choice of answers. The seniors were free to answer any way they chose. This was not a scientific study, but simply an attempt at compiling the beliefs of seniors faced with the decision whether or not to sell their home.

Following are the compiled results, including respondents’ comments:

1. What are the top three reasons that you are considering a move?

42% — Maintenance

  • Home and yard too much work (can’t find reliable or affordable handyman)
  • Home deterioration (can’t afford or physically maintain good condition)
  • Snow shoveling or plowing driveway
  • Responsibility of caring for a home

34% — Health Issues

  • Will need medical help in the future
  • Reduced physical abilities
  • Beginning stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Can’t take care of self
  • Loss of eyesight

10% — Downsizing

  • Home too large for current needs
  • Kids moved out, and not using space

6% — Loneliness

  • Looking for companionship
  • Someone to see if you’re o.k.
  • Contact with people in health emergencies
  • Spouse passed away, now alone
  • Children have moved out

6% — Transportation

  • Location is not close to shopping, doctors
  • Security (don’t feel comfortable in current surroundings)
  • Physically unable to drive
  • Too much traffic and noise

6% — Age

  • Getting too old (unable to enjoy home as before)

4% — Finances

  • Too expensive to stay
  • Will the taxes keep going up? Too high already

Other Answers

  • Declining ambition
  • Spouse doing all the work
  • Need a new lifestyle
  • Don’t want to burden the children
  • Loss of family and friends

2. What are the top three fears that are keeping you from making a move?

32% — Fear of Change

  • Going to strange surroundings
  • Familiar to less familiar
  • New setting
  • Leaving our neighborhood
  • Loss of neighbors/secure with current friends and neighbors
  • Emotional separation from home
  • Fear of unknown

26% — Fear of Downsizing

  • Packing and sorting
  • Giving up treasures possessions
  • Where do you start?
  • Entire process too difficult
  • What to do with the things you won’t have room for in your new home
  • Physical exertion of moving

24% — Emotional Fears

  • I’ll miss my home
  • Will my new neighbors be compatible?
  • What if I make a mistake? Bad decision
  • Will I get cabin fever?
  • What if I can’t take my pet?
  • I’m afraid I’ll take too long to decide

8% — Financial Concerns

  • Monthly costs of new residence
  • Income won’t cover costs
  • Cost increases in new residence
  • Costs of moving

4% — Loss of Independence

  • Will others make decisions for me?
  • Lose control of my life
  • Sharing living space

Other Answers

  • Will I have to bring up my house to code when I sell?
  • My husband wants to stay and I must accommodate his wishes
  • My wife has too large of a burden; she cooks, cleans, and makes decisions
  • Will I like the new senior housing over a long period of time?
  • Will I like community living?
  • Future health concerns
  • Hallways are too narrow in senior communities

3. How many years have you been in your present home?

  • 0-20 YEARS — 22%
  • 21-30 YEARS — 10%
  • 31-40 YEARS — 26%
  • 41-50 YEARS — 34%
  • 50-60 YEARS — 8%

(Note that 68% of respondents have been in their current homes more than 30 years)

4. What do you find most confusing about current housing options?

Respondents all mentioned cost or pricing issues. Their comments included:

  • Refundable fees vs. non-refundable fees
  • Monthly payments
  • Security deposits
  • Utilities
  • Rate changes or increases
  • Best options for my situation
  • Poor heating and cooling systems
  • Terms of lease agreement
  • Right of residents (rules and regulations)
  • Anticipating future needs
  • Monthly expense comparison (current vs. new residence)
  • Future cost increases
  • Extras such as pool, clubhouse, exercise room should be separate

5. What are the three most positive changes you see in the future?

(Note that, although the question was regarding positive changes, 32% of respondents answered in the negative or could not think of any positives.)

Positive

  • Health Advances
  • Disease control
  • Medical advances
  • Prescription insurance

Negative

  • Can’t think of anything positive
  • No clue
  • Won’t get better/ Hoping for status quo
  • Everything iffy
  • Future looks bleak
  • We live too long
  • Government is so disappointing

Miscellaneous

  • Transportation improvement
  • Less government corruption
  • Improvement of social morality
  • Enough money to last rest of life
  • New friends
  • Better politicians
  • Trips with groups
  • More done on Internet

6. What are your three biggest fears about the future?

44% — Health

  • Loss of physical ability
  • Not able to take care of self/make own decisions
  • Pain and suffering
  • Burden on loved ones
  • I get sick or die before spouse/who will then take care of me?
  • No one to help me if I get sick/alone when ill

26% — Finances

  • Loss of financial security
  • Inflation
  • Can I afford change?
  • Taxes are going up

Loneliness (small percentage of respondents)

  • Loss of independence
  • Death of spouse
  • Companionship
  • Isolation
  • No children, who will help take care of me?
  • Alone when ill

Government (small percentage of respondents)

  • Too much government involvement
  • Lack of leadership
  • Safety on streets
  • Federal government leading us to disaster (global ecology)
  • War-war-war!
  • Chemical warfare

Miscellaneous

  • Making the right decision
  • How long will I live?
  • Not being in control, driving etc.

7. What have you heard most from friends and relatives who have made the move to senior housing?

76% — Satisfied

  • Most glad they made the move
  • Most seem happy
  • Relief from duties at home
  • Lifestyle improved
  • Was a good idea
  • Making new friends
  • Chores and meals done for them
  • Travel and have fun without worry of home
  • Should have done it sooner!

12% — Not Satisfied

  • New home too small
  • Circumstances made their decision
  • Hard to adjust to downsizing
  • Too much time on hands

12% — Not Sure or No Opinion

Conclusions

After reading the responses, I came to some important conclusions. Fear was holding many of the seniors back from making a move that they could or should make. Of course, we are all “victims” of comfort and stability. We’ll stay in situations because we feel comfortable and safe, even if we are unhappy! How many people stay in bad marriages, or jobs to the detriment of our happiness and well being? We do so in many cases because that’s what we know. It reminded me of the story…

There once was a fox and a scorpion. The scorpion needed to get across a pond and asked the fox for a ride on his nose. The fox agreed, having known the scorpion to be honest and kind. The scorpion got onto the nose of the fox. Half way across, in the middle and deepest part of the pond, the scorpion reared up and stung the fox in the nose! The fox was startled and asked, “Why did you sting me in the nose? Now I will drown and we will both die!” The scorpion looked at the fox and said, “I stung you because that’s what scorpions do.”

The moral of the story is that, like the scorpion, people do what they do because they do what they do. It may not be healthy, but the comfort and security of a known condition is better than the unknown (many times healthier) changes we should make for our well being.

My senior respondents stated overwhelmingly that maintenance of their homes and deteriorating health were reason enough to move. Their homes were too large in many cases, but emotional issues were overriding the logical part of their brain. Most have been in their homes over 30 years. Much has been accumulated. There is total confusion as to the choices available and costs for senior housing. Many are pessimistic about the future. There seems to be a feeling that things will get worse before they get better. However, some feel that medical advances, longevity of life and better politicians will make for a better tomorrow. Fears about health in the future and dwindling finances weighed heavily on my respondents.

The responses to the question about what they heard from friends and relatives who have already moved were not surprising. The overwhelming majority stated that satisfaction and happiness were the result of the move. The people they believed and relied on for honest information were happy, which leaves an incongruity.

People they trusted had told the respondents that a move to senior housing was a positive, healthy answer to their current housing problems … problems they had had in common. But in many cases, the familiarity of a bad situation was more attractive than changing to a seemingly better unknown.

Recommendations

Seniors whose housing accommodations are not meeting their health or lifestyle needs should have their fears acknowledged and dealt with in an forthright manner. However, it is time to look at the facts and encourage them to overcome their fear of the unknown. They should be helped to take an honest look at their life and decide if they want to leave it to chance or design their remaining years to meet their needs for fun, enjoyment and security.

A senior, or a person who cares for one, can begin this road to freedom by gathering information through the many professionals who are ready and willing to help. There are companies to prepare a home for sale, to help sell and pack personal property and to assist with arranging finances. Professionals will assess each situation and offer the best options for health and financial needs. In short, let others who have been there before serve as guides and make the move if it is the right thing to do.

The following are professional services and providers that seniors can use to help them change their lifestyle if a change is needed:

  • A Senior Financial Planner can advise as to the best use of the current assets. These consultants can help decide which senior housing options will work best financially.
  • A Realtor will help design a game plan regarding when to sell, how much a home is worth and also make recommendations for other trusted professionals.
  • A Marketing Director, or professional senior placement service, will assess the particular situation and offer guidance as to which senior housing would best serve individual needs.
  • A professional moving company can explain the services they provide, such as packing and moving, as well as the costs involved.
  • A personal property liquidator (estate sale specialist) will estimate the value of personal property and provide appraisal advice for valuables.
  • Tours are offered for all senior housing options. Plan to take as many tours as needed, after talking to marketing directors or placement services.

Most importantly, it’s a time for seniors to look deep inside themselves and ask if their current lifestyle is the dream they worked towards for their entire life. Is this the way to spend the rest of one’s life? If it is the right style for a given situation, then stay and enjoy the home for years to come. Unfortunately we never know how long we will live or how our good health will last. So think clearly and honestly.

About Bruce Nemovitz

Bruce Nemovitz has been a Realtor in the Milwaukee area for more than thirty-five years. He is in expert in helping senior parents moving into a different lifestyle.
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