News & Politics

New Choices

City or Country--and Other Questions to Ask When Choosing a Home for Your Retirement

You've spent the last 45 years jumping through hoops on the job. You have a 401k. You sent 2.3 children to college. You have a gold watch, a thank-you for your dedication at work. Now what?

Maybe you're thinking of moving to a smaller home or into a complex that caters to mature residents. Or to a continuing-care community, where staff assistance is available as needed. In any case, your choice of a home for retirement depends on how you want to live, says Dave Robertson, editor of Living Southern Style.

"Consider your priorities," he says. After decades of working and raising children, those priorities may have changed: "If you have to redefine your daily routines, you get to redefine your life."

Washington affords many housing options. How do you narrow them down for a wise decision? Ponder these three points, suggests Elinor Ginzler, manager of long-term care and independent living at AARP:

* If you move to a retirement community, do you prefer an urban or a rural environment? What about noise and movement–do you like to be a part of the zeitgeist or to feel soothingly cloaked in nature? Will you continue to drive; is proximity to public transport important?

* What level of comfort do you require? Would you prefer a high-rise, a garden-style apartment or condo, a townhouse or bungalow? Will you or your spouse need an elevator or accessibility features? What amenities appeal to you? And how much are you willing–or able–to spend?

* What kinds of activities are offered? Some retirement complexes take a hands-off approach, while others offer everything from full sports facilities to cooking clubs and film societies. Would you prefer a lot of involvement with others, whether indoors or out, or to fend for yourself in a low-key setting?

Steve Gurney, publisher of Fairfax-based Guide to Retirement Living, suggests listing tangible needs and intangible wants. Choosing well means "focusing on what makes you happy–things you couldn't do when you were younger."


First, think about the greater environment–the urban or rural setting, the sense of relaxing space or lively activity.

If city living is for you, consider the tony Jefferson in North Arlington. Twenty-one stories high, the luxurious complex has a view over much of the region, even of the Washington National Cathedral.

The Ballston Metro, a short block away, gives residents easy access to downtown DC as well as National Airport, Old Town Alexandria, and Arlington attractions. Across the street, Ballston Common shopping mall includes Hecht's and 12 movie theaters. Nearby are Rio Grande Café and Tara Thai, both on The Washingtonian's lists of top restaurants.

Fine food can be found inside as well. In the dining room, residents are seated by a maître d', Champagne brunch is popular, and entrées may include chicken with apple-walnut dressing or poached salmon.

The Jefferson's 325 condominiums have one to three bedrooms. Prices range from $130,000 to $450,000 with no entry fee; monthly fees range from $1,344 to $1,828.

By contrast, you can find the freedom of open spaces without sacrificing convenience in the outlying areas of Washington.

The Village at Collington, in Mitchellville, Maryland, is being developed about four blocks from FedEx Stadium. An hourly shuttle bus will take residents of its 80 homes to and from the nearby New Carrollton Metro/Amtrak station.

Inside the gates, though, deer and swans are common and the bustle seems far away. The new community's 20 acres are adjacent to the Collington continuing-care community, and Village residents will have access to its 128 verdant acres, including walking trails and gardens.

Buyers may choose from four floor plans–oak, poplar, holly, and dogwood–named for stands of mature trees nearby. With one or two bedrooms on one level, all houses have an unfinished upper story and a one- or two-car garage. Houses, built in small clusters, have a traditional cottage look, and their vinyl siding resembles wood.

House prices–$254,000 to $270,000–vary not by size but by location, with the most woodsy settings commanding the bigger price tags. The monthly fee is $300 to $400. Models should be open by July.


Moving on to comfort level, what tone would you most appreciate in your surroundings: a polished look with all the latest amenities, or a more down-to-earth feel?

Classic Residence by Hyatt in Chevy Chase offers a variety of comforts. The first floor is covered in mahogany. Residents also enjoy an indoor heated swimming pool and fitness center, a computer lab, and an art studio with classes in watercolor and porcelain painting. A garden lounge is the setting for free regular concerts, some by Peabody Conservatory students.

Chevy Chase shopping is in easy walking distance, and a shuttle makes runs to Saks Jandel and Mazza Gallerie as well as to museums and restaurants. A chauffeured Cadillac is also available. Most apartments have a private balcony and overlook eight acres of landscaped grounds and the Columbia Country Club golf course.

All this luxury doesn't come cheap: One- to two-bedroom apartments rent for $2,350 to $4,330 a month.

If elegant extras are not a priority, look for communities that offer a good value while still providing the complete package. Many suitable retirement settings, Gurney says, are simply apartment or condo complexes that focus on seniors' needs.

The Gardens at Kentlands in Gaithers- burg–built for senior independent living–offers competitive rents that closely match those of standard apartments. "We are a luxury community at reasonable rates," property manager James Coulter says.

Just two years old, these 211 garden-style apartments are built around a town center that includes two groceries, a bank, post office, hairdresser, and restaurants. That's a big plus, says Coulter: "You could move in here and not really need a car."

Staff members plan outings to the District and Gettysburg as well as mother-daughter dinners and other social events. A dining room, small theater–with popcorn machine–and staffed fitness center add to the supportive environment. Safety features include a 24-hour emergency pull-cord system. Rates are $950 to $995 a month for one bedroom, $1,475 to $1,995 for two.


A third major factor in considering a retirement community, says AARP's Ginzler, is the activities available for entertainment, education, and socialization, whether formal or informal.

At Washington House, a continuing-care facility in Alexandria, an active mind can be matched by an active body. The fitness center's three certified instructors offer classes six days a week, from low-intensity yoga and tai chi to high-intensity aerobics and strength training.

Washington House has 193 residents, and its fitness center registers more than 600 visits a month. "We have a 97-year-old woman who is pressing 200 pounds," says community director Nicol Duda. Membership is available, for a fee, to seniors who live elsewhere, so on their own turf, "residents can socialize with those in and out of the community," Duda says.

Residents stay active with a new putting green and a 200-yard-long walking path–plus a game room with pool table, table tennis, a juice bar, and shuffleboard. Apartments–studios and one and two bedrooms–rent for $1,976 to $4,003 a month.

And at Gaithersburg's Asbury Methodist Village, a resident-run continuing-education program resembles a small college. The dean of the Keese School of Continuing Education, as it is called, is resident Leona Bachrach–who has written 200 articles and books and taught psychiatry at the University of Maryland.

Each semester includes two dozen lecture series and five to six classes, among them drawing, elements of the symphony, memoir writing, and foreign policy. Some instructors are local professionals; others are residents. Talks on the US legislative process, for example, are given by resident Mitchell Wendell, once a political-science professor and editor of Columbia Law Review.

In addition, Asbury's 1,500 residents and employees did more than 50,000 hours of volunteer service last year, communications director Donna Phillips estimates. Among other things, residents staff the Meals on Wheels calling center for homebound neighbors in Gaithersburg.

Asbury has 676 apartments and 74 one-story villas open to people of any faith. Entrance fees range from $44,900 to $286,000, and monthly fees range from $900 to $1,600. n