Woman smiling in lobby

Frequently Asked Questions about Moving to a Retirement Community with Kelly Sweigart

October 21, 2021

Season 2, Episode 5

Listen to the podcast at: Purpose in Retirement

Kelly Sweigart: Maybe you want to be blunt about this, maybe you don’t, but a question is, “do you take all of my money?”

Juanita Fox: That’s a good question to ask because you don’t know, right?

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah. I think it’s a big fear for people. There’s the stigma that retirement communities do that.


Scott Miller: This is a show where we’ll explore what it means to retire with purpose.

Juanita Fox: To make a difference, to invest in your family, your community, to live to your full potential and explore abundant opportunities to live with purpose in community.

Scott Miller: From Garden Spot Communities in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Welcome to

Juanita Fox: Purpose in Retirement.

Juanita Fox: Hello. I’m Juanita Fox, the storyteller at Garden Spot Communities.

Scott Miller: And I’m Scott Miller, the chief marketing officer.

Juanita Fox: Scott, how did you help your daughters choose their colleges?

Scott Miller: Well, I have three daughters and they all went to college. Pretty much the way that process went was they started receiving a lot of stuff in the mail. They pretty much knew right away what they were interested in and what they weren’t. They’d been thinking about it, so they kind of had an idea of what schools they wanted to go to, especially considering what they wanted to study. They had an idea, and then, like most parents, we picked out a couple, two or three, and we started visiting. It was actually pretty evident when we got there, because they would go like, “yeah, not this one.” Right, or they would go like, “yeah, I think this one is the one.” And interestingly enough, I don’t think any of them wound up at the school that they originally thought they wanted to go to after they had visited.

Juanita Fox: Interesting. You know, my kids are getting to the age where we’re starting to have those conversations. Do they want to go to college, what do they want to study. You know, Matt is going to be a junior this year, and he’s getting letters all the time. We’re getting emails all the time, and it’s really overwhelming to even think about how you begin that process. It’s been 30 years since I’ve had to make that decision for myself, and it was overwhelming 30 years ago.

Scott Miller: And I think in a lot of ways choosing a retirement community can be a similar process. You’ve got these campus tours, in most places you can stay overnight, there’s the financial piece of it, the application. There are a lot of similarities between choosing a retirement community and choosing a college.

Juanita Fox: Today we’re going to talk with Kelly Sweigart. She leads the sales team here at Garden Spot Village, and while we want this to be a broader conversation about retirement living, we asked her to join us because she’s our resident expert.

Scott Miller: Yeah, she is.

Juanita Fox: And the information that she’s going to be sharing really applies at any retirement community so it’s really valuable. She’s going to talk with us about tours, applications and all the questions you should ask as you make the decision. She really sees herself as a guide, rather than a salesperson. She wants people to make the best decisions for themselves.

Commercial break

Scott Miller: Kelly, thank you for joining us this morning.

Kelly Sweigart: Thank you for having me.

Juanita Fox: Kelly, in this season of Purpose in Retirement Scott and I are going to be talking to a variety of people, and we will be having conversations about the ins and outs of moving to a retirement community. We are hoping that we will be able to help them answer most of the questions you didn’t know to ask about moving to a retirement community.

Scott Miller: So to begin our conversation, can you just tell us a little bit about your role in the sales department at Garden Spot Village?

Kelly Sweigart: I am the sales director here, so I meet with people in the very beginning of their process, coming in for tours of the community, answering phone calls, emails, bringing them around to see the different types of homes that we have here, getting them onto the waiting list for the future. And then eventually, my favorite part, giving them a call when we do have a future home for them and moving them in.

Scott Miller: So, sometimes people compare choosing a retirement community to choosing a college. So when you think about that? What was your experience in choosing a college, and how does that compare to a retirement community?

Kelly Sweigart: I think it’s really similar. I actually have made this metaphor with people before—coming in for the tours, checking out the culture of a community and making sure it’s a good fit for you. And I even talk about how our philosophy with the activities is kind of similar to what I remember from looking at a college. Like, if we don’t have the club you’re looking for already, we can help you get that started here, finding a space, people with like interests. There is an application process as well, going though that, but I always joke you don’t have to write an essay for us, which is nice. But yeah, finding the right fit for you, touring around, can be very similar.

Juanita Fox: Do you have advice for people who are looking for a retirement community, and maybe what are some of those questions that people should ask?

Kelly Sweigart: I would say first thinking of just finding someone else who lives there to talk to and asking, “Can I talk to a resident here?”

A lot of times people come to me having already gotten a referral from a friend. I think that’s one of the main ways people find Garden Spot is just talking to another resident. But yeah, talking to someone who lives here is great. A lot of times with sales, they might want the salesperson to be in charge of the whole visit, to give you the best experience possible. But you want to get that authentic answer from the residents that live here too. I like that Garden Spot actually has residents do the tours, so you can have that one-on-one time with them without a salesperson present and you can really ask, “what’s it really like here?” But if you ask the salesperson, “Can I talk to a resident?” and they don’t seem to want to let you do that, to me that’s a really big red flag. Why not, what don’t they want me to hear?

Another one we had kind of thrown around here, maybe you want to be blunt about this, maybe you don’t, but a question is “do you take all of my money?”

Juanita Fox: That’s a good question to ask because you don’t know, right?

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah. I think it’s a big fear for people. There’s the stigma that retirement communities do that. So, a story I like to share: I had a resident couple that met with me where the wife was really interested, the husband really was not on board yet. What we finally got to in our conversations together, was realizing that he truly thought that we took all of his money when he moved in here.

Scott Miller: Really?

Kelly Sweigart: So once I gathered that that was what was stopping him, I talked about how you just pay the entrance fee, you pay the monthly fee, we don’t take control of the rest of your finances. We don’t take your passwords, your account numbers, that sort of thing. And then I could literally see the lightbulb go off in his head. He’s like, “Oh, well in that case, I’m ready!” You know, and they got on our waiting list soon afterwards, they live here in a carriage home now. So, you know, if that was really what was keeping him, I would rather have him bluntly ask, “Do you take all my money?” so that I can say, “No, that’s not how it works,” versus sitting there and thinking this thing. And having it stopping you from this great future you could have had.

Juanita Fox: Yeah, absolutely. What are some of the other questions that we should be considering?

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah, a similar one to “can I talk to a resident?” would be “can I see the nursing facilities?” So I think that’s something a lot of people don’t want to think about, they want to say “okay, I know it’s here, I’ll look at it when I need it.” But it’s very important, so it’d be worthwhile to see up front, or at least just see how willing the staff are to take you there. Again, that could be a red flag where they say “well, I don’t know.” I know right now with Covid it’s a little different than it used to be, but making sure that you can at least do a quick walk-by, look in the windows, you can get a good idea of the feel of a place just walking in from there. So, like, the households that we have here I think it shows really well. People go in and say “okay, this feels like home, this doesn’t feel like a hospital.” So even just a quick walk-through can give you what you need.

Scott Miller: It might be helpful to back up just a little bit and talk to us about, you know, what is a retirement community in general. Oftentimes people think about retirement communities and it’s just healthcare, but it’s so much more than that, from what we know about it. So how do you talk to people about that?

Kelly Sweigart: Sure, yeah, so I talk about how we’re a CCRC—Continuing Care Retirement Community—or kind of one of the new terms as well is the Life Plan Communities, they really mean the same thing. The majority of the people are independent, so they’re in our homes here, they’re in apartments, but the main perk of being in a community like this is that you have that access to the healthcare services down the road if your needs change. So you are taken care of for life, we have the personal care, the memory support, the skilled nursing, and then the in-home care options as well so that people can stay independent in their homes for as long as possible. And then a lot of non-profits have, like, a benevolent fund, something like that, so that if someone were to outlive their financial resources, there’s support for them as well.

Scott Miller: And it seems to me that a good question to ask in general is “what percentage of people live in independent or residential living, as opposed to healthcare?” That gives you a good sense of the size of the community and how many people live in that independent area, which is where most people start.

Kelly Sweigart: Mm-hm. Getting a good feel of the community. Is it mostly healthcare, is it mostly independent, or even asking too, people ask me, you know, average age of the residents there, or “what’s the mix of singles versus couples,” that can be really important as well. I find it interesting, we’re about 50/50 for the singles and couples. I’d say couples are more in the cottages, the homes. Singles might be more in the apartments, but it is a good mix everywhere, so don’t feel like you have to choose one because you’re single.

Scott Miller: And another term that you’ve mentioned a couple of times is an entrance fee. What do people get for their entrance fee, and how does that work?

Kelly Sweigart: So this is a very interesting concept for a lot of people to grasp, because you’re used to buying a home as a real estate purchase and having that equity in the home. So I know this is one people have trouble getting over, like, “so I’m paying an amount that’s similar to buying a home, but I don’t own it, so what am I getting for that?” So you are getting use of the home for your entire lifetime, but then you’re also getting all of Garden Spot and all of the amenities that we have here as well. So all the opportunities to volunteer, take part in the activities. But then you’re also getting the carefree lifestyle of all the lawn care, maintenance-free living, that sort of thing. So I tell people “if you can’t get over that big number, you know, put down all of the incidentals that you have to pay for your home for the year over that time, you know, if the home needs a new roof, new refrigerator—all of this is covered by Garden Spot.

And another thing to think of too, is you’re kind of paying for the amount of time that you’re living here also. So we’re 55 and over, if you move in here at 55, you’re going to be living here 30, 40 years. Taking that amount over that period of time can make that big chunk of money feel like more value.

Scott Miller: And so you just mentioned the monthly fee, so then what’s the monthly fee?

Kelly Sweigart: So the monthly fee you can think of as more of your day-to-day expenses that you have now. So take all of the bills that you pay and add that up. And a lot of times when I show people the monthly fees here, it is much less than they pay, especially with property taxes in certain areas, that can be a big one. But it also streamlines your bills too. Basically everything’s paid directly to Garden Spot, and it’s a fixed electric or heat, so over the summer you can keep the AC going as much as you want and everything’s covered, just the same amount for the whole year. Now something to think about, and something we can talk about with the application process too, is that our monthly fees do rise each year with cost of living. And that is something we take into account when people apply, making sure that their income would cover how that would rise in the future.

Scott Miller: One comment that I would make, you know, sort of along the lines of what you were talking about, is that you had mentioned the way that you’re familiar with monthly fees, you know, operating, that is one of the questions to ask, because in some places, electric may or may not be covered, water and sewer may or may not be covered, right, so it’s good to ask about what goes into those monthly fees so you get a sense of additional out-of-pocket expenses that you might have once you live there.

Kelly Sweigart: What’s covered and what’s not. Yeah, and then there is also, we are the fee for service type of monthly fee, which means that it does not include the healthcare services until you need them. So at the time that you were to need personal care, memory care, skilled nursing, the rate would change and would increase at the time that your needs have increased. So you will ask if the community is the fee for service type of payment model, or the other one is called life care, which may be two to three times more up front, in the independent living, but it’s including the healthcare costs, so it will not rise at the time that you move to a healthcare area. So usually that’s one of the first decisions people make, is what makes the most sense to me, choosing off of that payment model.

Scott Miller: And I’ll just express my bias here, which is why pay for something if you don’t know if you’re ever going to need it, right. And so I’m obviously biased towards the fee for service. However, many, many people do choose the life care, because there’s a security in that, I mean, you know that you don’t have any additional expenses over the course of time, right.

Juanita Fox: So let’s say I’ve visited a number of retirement communities, you know, I’m ready to put in my application a couple of different places. What does that process look like, what can I expect?

Kelly Sweigart: So our paper application has about, I think 6 pages to it. I’ve heard some say that there’s a thicker stack other places. So you fill out, you know, about yourself, contact information, your hobbies, that sort of thing. But then we do a deep dive into your finances. So it’s pretty much broken down, you know, what’s the value of your current home? Do you have any rental properties, 401ks, that sort of thing. So it’s easy enough to follow. It is interesting sometimes, where people haven’t really sat down and put together all of their assets into one place, so it can be really eye-opening to have it all there.

So we do kind of run it through this model that we have based off of someone’s finances, because we have this benevolent fund that we offer to people if they were to run out of money in the future. So we want to make sure we’re good stewards of that fund and looking into people’s finances, making sure they wouldn’t be at high risk of needing supplemental income for a long period of time. So we look into someone’s age, how long they may be living in the community. We look into the entrance fee of the home of their choosing. You know, someone who’s interested in a studio would need less to qualify than someone that’s looking for our biggest 2800 square foot home.

That’s the nice thing, is that there is something for everybody, every price range. I have people that ask me a lot for, like, a lump sum of like “what’s a good number that I should have in my assets to qualify?” And I’m always so hesitant to give them a number, because I don’t want someone to think that they couldn’t have qualified when they really could have.

So we look into their age, we look into the monthly income that they have, making sure that they can afford the increases that we might have in the future. But also that they have money above and beyond our monthly fee to pay for groceries, or, healthcare expenses or going on vacation. So there’s a lot of factors there, and I can sit down with people afterwards and actually look at the report. So we spend it down to kind of a bottom dollar, at the end of someone’s life, how much money we may think they think they have left. So that can be a good decision-making factor if you’re between “should I go for a bigger home? How does that change my bottom line?” versus “maybe I want to spend a lot of time traveling, and I’d rather have this more cost-effective home so that I’d have a better income for my other expenses.”

Scott Miller: Just in talking to us, it sounds like you are much more of a counselor than a salesperson.

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah, I definitely feel that way, you know, getting to know people and their situations here, yeah, finding the best fit for them and what they want to do with their retirement years.

Scott Miller: So you sort of guide them through it. You know, another question that comes in then with the application process is “so how does this generally take?” How quick can it be, how long might it take.

Kelly Sweigart: I usually tell people, like, a week or two before they’d hear back. So all of our applications are approved by our sales manager, by our chief marketing director here, our CEO and CFO, so it does make the rounds through. And then you will receive an acceptance letter in the mail, which does remind me of that college moment of, “I’m a future resident now!” And actually our process is a little different, so be asking too, about “does the application automatically put me onto a waiting list? How does that work?” Because for ours, it’s just kind of a pre-approval. You’re a future resident, you start to get invited to events and things we have going on in the campus to get you more acclimated, ready to move in the future. But we do have a second step. So if they’re ready to get on the waiting list right away, I recommend as soon as you get your letter, give me a call, and we can start our next part of the process.

Juanita Fox: It’s really driven by me. So if I get that acceptance letter and if I’m ready to move in immediately, I can reach out and do the next step, or if I’m not quite sure that it’s something I want to do right away, I can take some time to think about it and get to know the community a little better.

Kelly Sweigart: Exactly. So that is a question that I get often too, “is there any benefit of applying when I’m not ready to move for ten years?” To me, I think it makes sense to apply early so that one: you know that you’re approved. I’d hate for someone to have this plan in their head: “I’m going to so-and-so place,” they’re planning on that for ten years, they finally apply when they’re ready, only to find out it wasn’t a good fit. And our future residents too, we do a lot of informational sessions. So helping you get ready for those next steps, things about downsizing, estate planning, moving, all of that information. So then you also get those invites to everything that’s here on the campus, so you can really start to meet friends early, you can start to learn your way around. You know, such a big place here. I always recommend starting a volunteer opportunity. Even if it’s one day a month, something like that, you can really learn your way around. It helps to be here ahead of time, and get yourself prepared for next steps.

Scott Miller: And I think just as a final comment, we were talking about that I know from some of the research that we do, that the average length of time typically for someone who’s ready to move or thinking about a retirement community is about three years. That is from an industry average, that’s the number that I’ve heard. Just observing what happens, for some people, they make the decision and three months later, they live in a retirement community. Other people, they start looking around, and eight or nine years later they start that process. So it’s really, as Juanita said, up to you, correct?

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah, and it’s interesting too. With our radar screen and the timing that we have for our wait list, you do have to make the decision before you’re ready, which is kind of tough. People wait until they’re ready to move tomorrow, and then turn around to say “oh, it’s going to be a few years wait.” So it is something you have to plan ahead for. A lot of good communities do have quite a few years wait. So that is something. Start looking, it’s never too early.

Juanita Fox: That goes back to the college application process, right? Because you start looking as a sophomore in high school. And you begin to tour the different colleges that you’re interested in, you apply, it takes a little bit of time to get the financial piece taken care of, and then you finally move in. So, colleges offer orientation. What happens at a retirement community? Is there a similar process for onboarding new residents?

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah, and even before you move in as a resident, we have the option to do a trial stay. So that kind of reminds me of my college orientation, where you come and you stay in the dorm for a night or two. So we do have a guest apartment, it’s a fully furnished studio apartment that you could stay in. We offer a free night and some free meals, or people can pay the guest room fee to stay for a week or a long weekend. I think that’s really helpful for people to get a feel of what day-to-day life is like in the community. I always recommend that for people who are on the fence, especially maybe about an apartment, they’ve maybe never lived in an apartment or when they were first starting out in their married life. So getting a feel of what it’s like. Everything’s right here outside your door, which is really nice.

So trying that out, but then also, after you’re moving in, we have some orientations with you. We have our village life orientation, which is run by our activities department and our social workers, so starting to get you involved with all the different opportunities that we have here on campus. We have you set up with a village greeter, which is one of your neighbors that’ll call or stop by and say, “Hey, I’m just down here if you have any questions, feel free anytime.” So trying to get that right balance of “you’re still moving in and we want to make sure you have time,” but also feeling welcome and having opportunities here.

Juanita Fox: And that would be true across the board for other retirement communities too, that they might have some kind of orientation process.

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah, because it can be a big life change moving from your home into a community like this. The good communities would have an orientation process instead of just, “here you are.”

Juanita Fox: Right, okay. So that’s another good question to ask, “is there a process for me, what does it look like when I move in here?”

Kelly Sweigart: It is interesting, not many people ask that. They ask me everything leading up to moving in, but not as much about once I’m here.

Scott Miller: Just to toss in another comment here. There was a focus group that was done a bunch of years ago with residents after they had moved in. And the question that was asked of them was, “What do you wish you would have asked before you moved here?” And somebody spoke up and said, “You know, it’s really good to ask about the leadership team, to find out what the leadership team is like. Do you want to be able to, you know, go and talk to the CEO, if that is important to you? Is that something that can be done, or do you never see the executive team?” And so, just find out what that leadership is like, they said was very, very important. They hadn’t thought about it, but they discovered that it is really important, something to ask about.

Kelly Sweigart: And I think that’s something unique about Garden Spot here too, is just the amount of opportunities you have to be face-to-face with the leadership team. The town meeting that we have each month, where each department keeps everyone caught up on everything going on. We have the Coffee and Conversation twice a month, where it is the upper management there, you can ask them anything you want. And even just the open-door policy in general here I think is pretty unique.

Juanita Fox: Do you have any additional advice you would give to people? We’ve talked about a lot of different things, but is there anything else that you were thinking of that you would definitely want to encourage someone to ask while they’re doing their tours of retirement communities?

Kelly Sweigart: And even just saying, “what should I be asking?” So I have a lot that’ll ask that as well, and I try to fill in. I usually get similar questions in similar parts of what I’m talking to with people. So if they don’t ask me the question, I say, “usually people ask me this here,” so I want to make sure I cover those bases with them. But again, not everybody might be thinking of that. So just asking, “what have I missed, what do other people ask at this point that I’m not asking you?”

Scott Miller: Well, very good. Thank you for joining us today.

Kelly Sweigart: Yeah, thanks.

Commercial break

Juanita Fox: Kelly answered some great questions I would have never thought to ask or actually would have been embarrassed to ask.

Scott Miller: Mm, yeah.

Juanita Fox: You know, especially that question about finances. It is a huge myth that you have to hand over all of your finances when you move to a retirement community.

Scott Miller: It is. Well, we summarized the five main ideas from our conversation with Kelly in a PDF. The PDF is entitled Five Ways Choosing a Retirement Community Is Like Choosing a College. And the link is in the podcast description. So there’s five ways, number one: campus tours. Number two: talking with the residents. Three: exploring ways to get involved. Four: finding the right fit. And five: waiting for your acceptance letter.

Scott Miller: Wow, you know what Juanita, this is our final episode for this season of Purpose in Retirement.

Juanita Fox: It’s been great to talk with so many experts this season, from Brad Breeding, to Margit Novack and Carol Lehman. Plus we had Liz Givens, Sherilyn, and today’s episode with Kelly Sweigart. We’ve learned so much.

Scott Miller: And we’d like to invite everyone to stay tuned for our next season of Purpose and Retirement, which we plan to launch in the spring of 2022.

Juanita Fox: We’ll be talking with more inspiring people who are doing amazing things in our community and around the world.

Scott Miller: Thank you for listening to Purpose and Retirement, I’m Scott Miller.

Juanita Fox: And I’m Juanita Fox.

Scott Miller: A special thanks to Kelly Sweigart for joining us for this podcast.

Juanita Fox: Our senior producer and host is Scott Miller.

Scott Miller: Our co-host is Juanita Fox. Our producer is Gavin Sauder. And our audio engineer is Jen Miller.

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