During a visit to Sacramento over the holidays a year ago, Nancy Lee Moore started shopping around for a senior residence community that felt comfortable to her.
At the time, she was living alone in a cottage overlooking the ocean in Newport, Ore., but the idyllic setting had begun to isolate Moore, now 80, who was widowed 13 years ago. Though she still drives, she found she was staying home more often, worried that she would fall getting out of her car.
"My brother came to visit me, and he said, 'I don't think you should live alone any longer,' " said Moore, a retired elementary school teacher. "I knew he was right. I didn't want to go, but I knew it was the right thing."
Six weeks ago, on the cusp of another holiday season, she moved to Sacramento's Eskaton Monroe Lodge, a seniors community on the edge of Land Park, to live near her son and his family.
For many older adults, the holidays represent an unofficial turning point in the way they live. The impetus for downsizing out of longtime homes and into seniors communities – or, in some cases, assisted living or even memory care – often comes after family visits at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when worried relatives start to notice a decline.
As a result, January is the month in which a new world of seniors housing begins to open up for many older adults.
"Sometimes, they just want one more holiday season in their own home," said Eskaton Monroe Lodge sales counselor Scott Okamoto. "They want to have a discussion with their families."
Less than a week into the new year, three prospective residents have already promised to put down deposits on apartments in his 99-unit facility, he said.
"We certainly have more inquiries from family members in January," said Betsy Donovan, Eskaton's chief operating officer.
"When relatives who have only spoken to the senior over the phone for a number of months spend time with them in person at the holidays, they can observe the physical and cognitive changes that have developed."
The cumulative weight of decline from one holiday to the next can be worrisome: Adult children suddenly notice their parents' forgetfulness has increased, while hearing and eyesight have decreased. Bills have gone unpaid. The toll of falling and other physical maladies, easily downplayed in phone conversations, become apparent.
On the other hand, maybe the older adult has simply had enough of a lifetime of expensive and strenuous house maintenance – enough with cleaning the gutters and paying for a new roof.
Or maybe children want their parents to have access to the social life that community living can offer, a built-in way to combat the spiral of loneliness that can come from living alone.
"Adult children come home, and they recognize what's been going on with their parents," said Staci Weisz, activities director at Carmichael's Atria Senior Living. "That's the biggest thing."
Seniors are waiting longer
More than 8 percent of Atria's 235 residents are newcomers in the last quarter, Weisz said, with 10 new residents arriving in December alone – and more arriving this month.
"It can take a while to pull together a decision," said Weisz. "Families have to figure out what's going on with Mother and how many siblings they have to talk to, and then they have to figure out what to do."
Statistically speaking, the desire to age in place – in the family homes where they've lived for decades – remains the strongest housing trend for seniors, with 80 percent of the 35 million Americans 65 and older owning their own homes, according to U.S. Census statistics.
Even so, nearly 2 million older adults live in seniors communities, the Society of Certified Senior Advisors says, and some experts foresee the possibility that the sheer size of the aging baby boom generation could cause a surge toward retirement community living.
Research shows that, with an average age of 86, people are already waiting longer into old age to consider moving into seniors housing.
Their top reasons for choosing retirement living over living independently? Two-thirds say they want a maintenance-free lifestyle, according to MetLife Mature Market Institute figures, and almost half view seniors communities as a convenient way to live closer to family members.
After contemplating the move for several months, Becky Romeis relocated in late spring from her east Sacramento condominium to a cozy apartment at River's Edge senior living community in Campus Commons.
"I didn't want to drive any more," said Romeis, 81. "My age made me decide to move. It was time for me to settle down and get into a smaller place."
Help available to downsize
Many older adults share her urge to simplify, said senior move manager Lee Mahla, but they don't know how to do it.
"A lot of the time, they just feel frozen," said Mahla, owner of Right Size Your Move, who coordinated Romeis' relocation. "It's an overwhelming task. There are a lot of decisions. They're not sure how they'll downsize. And they're comfortable with the way things are.
"It can create a stifled situation."
Older adults also worry about losing their privacy and independence when they move to seniors communities, said Donovan – but what they gain, she said, is a renewed sense of family, since their adult children no longer have to worry about them or be their caregivers.
At 90, Mary Gilbert moved into the Carmichael Oaks seniors community in early December from her condo in Gold River. Her eight adult children were concerned because she fell so often.
"If I fall, I can't get up," said Gilbert, who underwent hip replacement surgery more than a decade ago after an especially bad fall. "I used to carry a cellphone in my pocket, and if I fell, I called one of the kids to come help me.
"I knew the kids were worried about me. They would come by three or four times a week to see that I was all right. I hated to make them feel obligated."
Days into the new year, Gilbert is still adjusting to her new home. But she's playing bridge again and going to exercise classes, and she's started using a walker.
"I haven't fallen since I've been here," Gilbert said. "I was ready for this."