It might sound like a lark for Mom and Dad to live out their golden years in a nice hotel or on a globetrotting cruise ship, but when you calculate the costs and the practical realities, how does it really compare to assisted living?
There’s an e-mail rumor that’s been making the rounds for years; have you heard this one? If you spend your retirement on a cruise ship, or as a permanent resident of the Holiday Inn, it’ll be cheaper and provide better service than your average nursing home or assisted living facility. That’s what the rumors say, anyway. We’ve done some research of our own, looked at the hard numbers about assisted living costs, and here’s what we’ve found out.
Cruise Ship Retirement: Urban Legend or the Next Big Thing?
The original e-mails outlining the benefits of a hotel or cruise ship over a assisted living might have started as a joke and morphed into an urban legend—but this type of offbeat retirement plan does occasionally happen. In 2008, the BBC ran a story about then 89-year-old Beatrice Muller, the only permanent resident aboard the long-running cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2.
As for the hotel rumor, the Towne Place Suites by Marriott in Falls Church, Virginia, were Joy Bricker’s home for 10 years, before ailing health forced her to move in with her daughter, according to a CNN report. Apartment living in the Washington, D.C. area was costly—and the extended-stay hotel offered amenities that a regular apartment didn’t.
Apart from the occasional Bea Muller or Joy Bricker, is this really a feasible plan? According to Dr. Lee Lindquist’s 2004 study comparing assisted living costs and benefits to those offered by cruise ships, “cruises were priced similarly to assisted living centers and were more efficacious.” Lindquist claimed that over a 20-year life expectancy, cruise ships only cost about $2,000 more than the cost of assisted living. And, she says, “when you compare that to the $9,000 a month or more charged by some assisted living facilities,” a cruise ship may seem like a bargain indeed.
Myth Busting: True Costs and Benefits
Since 2004, costs for cruises and for assisted living have been going up but comparing average cruise costs to $9,000 a month assisted living fees is misleading and inaccurate. According to A Place for Mom’s 2012 Cost of Care Survey, the actual average monthly cost of assisted living ranges from $2,500 to $4,600. There’s considerable variation, too, depending on where seniors live and what amenities they need. If your loved one wants a large two-bedroom apartment, for instance, it’s going to cost more, but there are always lower-cost options such as a studio or shared living space. And remember that the cost of living varies widely depending on where in the U.S. you’re located. If you’re willing to look outside of an expensive city or if you live in a state where day-to-day costs aren’t as high, the average monthly assisted living cost is going to be lower, too.
Meanwhile, in 2001, Muller’s costs for staying on the QE2 were reportedly about $5,000 per month for a 10×10 windowless cabin. And presumably it’s a bit tricky to get insurance to cover a cruise. As for the Towne Place Suites in Falls Church, VA, though you get free wi-fi for your trouble, the cost is now about $148 a night with a senior discount: almost $4,500 per month. Although other hotels are considerably less expensive—depending, of course, on location–there’s still the fact that most meals aren’t included and you’d be without 24-hour trained senior living personnel.
It’s important to note that not all types of senior housing are created equal. Life on a cruise ship might compare favorably to expensive dull nursing homes portrayed in popular media, but the reality is quite different, and in fact, luxury senior housing and retirement communities offer many of the same perks that a cruises ships do: entertainment, chances to socialize, and customized senior nutrition, to name just a few. And they aren’t as expensive as you might think. Nursing homes and memory care, which provide skilled nursing on a 24-hour basis, are the pricier options. But for seniors who don’t need constant care, retirement communities and independent living are far less expensive–and yes, they generally cost less than a hotel or a cruise: sometimes as little as $1,500 a month.
The logistics of living permanently on a cruise ship seem more than a little impractical. First of all, you can’t bring more much more than a suit case worth of possessions on a cruise. You can forget about packing your favorite sitting chair or a painting. That issue aside, it’s not as if one could just move on to a cruise ship and live happily ever after. Passengers must disembark when the cruise ends, and make arrangements while the ship is at port. Keeping these temporary arrangements month after month would be more than burdensome.
Another consideration is that seniors who move to assisted living facilities and nursing homes require help with activities of daily living such as bathing, toileting, dressing, and grooming. Yes, you may be able to get breakfast in bed on a cruise ship or hotel, but the staff are is not prepared or able to help provide hands-on personal care.
Health Risks for Seniors on Cruise Ships
Furthermore, many seniors have a high-risk of falling because of mobility problems. A cruise ship certainly wouldn’t be the best living environment such a person, as even very large ships can list violently in bad weather.
Cost is not the only factor in making a decision about senior living, particularly for those who might want to stay close to family and friends, or who might have care needs requiring skilled nursing. Cecil Adams, author of the newspaper column The Straight Dope, points out that “the elderly are going to have a lot more medical issues than cruise ships are set up to handle.” And while there is such a thing as a hotel doctor, they generally don’t live on-site, but rather make potentially costly house calls.
Not only that, hotel doctors and on-board medical personnel likely won’t include geriatric specialists. Cecil points out: “If an emergency arises that they’re not ready for and you can’t wait till the ship reaches the next port, your ambulance ride is almost certainly going to be an airlift, which can be expensive and logistically problematic.” In light of how drastic contagious illnesses can be in a confined environment like a cruise ship—remember the norovirus outbreaks?—an emergency might be more of a likelihood than we care to consider.
Even if it’s not an emergency, health care concerns are still important. If you take another look at Joy Bricker’s story, you’ll note that she had to leave her hotel room once her health began to decline. And hotels and cruise ships aren’t equipped to deal with ongoing dementia care, nor do they offer increasing levels of care, as do facilities that specialize in housing seniors.
Have you considered a cruise ship, hotel, or other unusual option for your loved ones? Let us know in the comments.