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Silver Linings: High-end continuing-care retirement community sells out quickly, demonstrating appeal

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 15. 2018 9:10PM
Richard Fitts makes a throw while playing horseshoes with friends at RiverWoods in Exeter on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Things to consider when evaluating continuing care communities
Lisa Henderson of Leading Age Maine New Hampshire tells seniors weighing the CCRC option: "It needs to be affordable. It needs to support your lifestyle. And the staffing needs to be appropriate to the level of care they're providing."

The National Continuing Care Residents Association publishes the "Consumer's Guide to Continuing Care Retirement Communities," which can be downloaded for free on Retirement living and health care experts recommend the following:

1) SCRUTINIZE the facility, resident population, educational and cultural activities, fitness club and dining hall. Visit several times and at different hours and watch how staff and residents interact with each other. Do the accommodations provide enough privacy and room for your belongings? Can you envision spending the rest of your life here?

2) PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION to the quality, setting and staffing in assisted living, dementia care and skilled nursing. Check the units' ratings on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website,, which uses a five-star system. Look for a five-star rating. Be suspicious of any that won't let you visit. Speak to current residents about the pros and cons of their experiences in independent living and higher levels of care.

3) CAREFULLY REVIEW the contract and supporting financial documents that indicate the organization's financial health. If you don't feel qualified to do that, consult an elder-law attorney, a certified public accountant or a financial adviser.

4) FIND OUT how monthly fees have increased in the last five years. Although CCRCs in New Hampshire must be licensed by the state's Department of Insurance if they charge entry payments that exceed $10,000 or a year's monthly charges, refunds can be hard to obtain.

5) EXPECT TO BE EVALUATED for health history and available finances. Although some have benevolent funds that can be tapped by qualified residents that run out of money in their elder years, CCRCs expect you to have enough money coming in and funds that can be accessed throughout your stay.

DURHAM - To nearly 200 seniors in their 70s and 80s, the mound of fresh dirt at an 11-acre clearing on Dover Road represents more than the start of RiverWoods Durham, a continuing care retirement community slated to open late next year. It's an open invitation to yoga and strength training, duplicate bridge, fiery discussions of politics and literature, day trips for hiking and skiing and a chance to make new friends.

It's also the promise of a commodity many consider priceless: peace of mind in your later years.

"I'm an old insurance man. This is an insurance policy," said David French, 77, of Hampton Falls, who plans to move there with his wife, who has early-stage Alzheimer's disease. She can advance to a memory care unit on campus while he remains nearby in their independent living apartment.

RiverWoods Durham is the latest addition to continuing care retirement communities affiliated with RiverWoods Group, which includes RiverWoods Exeter and Birch Hill in Manchester. It's one of New Hampshire's 13 licensed CCRCs, 10 of which offer comfortable to luxury accommodations, resort-worthy amenities, cultural and educational activities and dining, as well as guaranteed care from assisted living through memory care and skilled nursing, typically a short walk, van ride or golf cart drive away from independent living.

The price for the lifestyle, an apartment without the worries, maintenance or expenses of home ownership, plus health care through the end of life, is enough to make average-income retirees shudder.

But it's less than the cost of assisted living or skilled nursing on the current market, and it's appealing to many: The 150 units at RiverWoods Durham sold out in 29 days when they were marketed in mid-January, setting a national record, according to Ziegler, an investment bank that finances nonprofit CCRCs nationwide.

The continuing care retirement living model has been around for nearly a century. But it's become steadily popular in the last 25 years, especially among active seniors who retire to states like New Hampshire without a sales and income tax, according to organizations that track housing and health care options for seniors.

To join a CCRC, applicants age 62 or older typically pay an entrance fee that can be comparable to the price of a single-family home, plus ongoing monthly charges that dwarf condo fees, for a contract that guarantees care through the end of life. At RiverWoods Durham that translates to $300,000 to $800,000 for a one- or two-bedroom apartment, and monthly charges that will range from $3,300 to $6,950 in 2020, depending on the size of the unit.

Arthur Hoover, 78, of New Durham, left, and David French, 77, of Hampton Falls played freshman baseball together at Dartmouth College, and were recently reunited at the groundbreaking for RiverWoods Durham. (ROBERTA BAKER/UNION LEADER)

Compared to the current price of assisted living, which costs roughly $7,000 monthly, and skilled nursing which runs upward of $10,000 a month, the bundled payments for housing, lifestyle and future care are a bargain for those who can afford it. Relatively level monthly payments increase with the cost of living, roughly 3 to 3½ percent per year, and include activities, amenities and one meal per day in RiverWoods Durham's farm-to-table dining room or bistro. About 30 percent of the fees are tax-deductible because they're considered pre-paid medical expenses.

"It provides peace of mind because it's care for a lifetime," said Lisa Henderson, executive director of Leading Age Maine New Hampshire, an organization of nonprofit senior care providers, including subsidized senior housing and CCRCs. "And the cost is going to stay quite level."

Long waiting lists

The wait list for a unit at RiverWoods Exeter, which opened in 1994, is currently two to three years. 

"This is a great opportunity for us to grow old gracefully," said Arthur Hoover, a retired lawyer from New Durham, who recently met up with French, a former teammate on the Dartmouth College freshman baseball team. "Our kids are delighted we've found a solution to our declining years."

"This is a good place for sen-agers - somebody who's a senior, but also like a teenager," said French.

In addition to attracting residents from as far as Arizona, Michigan and the Carolinas, the CCRC is drawing 20 percent from Lee, Madbury and Durham - including Carly and Jim Heller, members of the UNH Class of 1957, who moved to Durham 16 years ago and became alumni representatives and student mentors.

"We didn't realize how much the students enjoyed having older people listen to their stories," Carly said.

"Our commitment is to help you build your best life every day," Justine Vogel, the CEO of RiverWoods Group, told a crowd of nearly 200 at the groundbreaking on Aug. 21. She quoted a summary of findings from a 75-year study on happiness and a good life by Harvard University: "Good relationships keep us happier and healthier - period."

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire's aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at or (603) 206-1514. See more at This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.

The success of RiverWoods in Exeter (shown here) has led to the model being duplicated in Durham. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

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