This is the second in a series of articles intended to demystify the experience of living in a retirement community.

The house is getting to be too much to take care of, cooking seems like a chore, and you really, really don't want to be climbing ladders to change light bulbs any more. If you consider moving to something called a "retirement community," what exactly does that mean?

As used in this column, a retirement community is a place that offers not only independent living arrangements - typically apartments -- but also assisted living arrangements and possibly facilities that provide additional levels of care such as a skilled nursing unit.

They set a minimum age for residents, typically 55 or 62, but if one spouse meets the age limit and the other doesn't, they can generally work around that requirement.

What does independent living mean? As in non-retirement apartment complexes, you retain complete control over your schedule and your activities. (Well, okay, loud parties at 4 a.m. are frowned upon, no matter where you live). Small well-behaved pets with valid licenses are typically welcome. If you want to bring your car, that's fine, too.

What is an independent living apartment like? The four sites in the Prescott, Arizona area visited for this column -- Alta Vista, Good Samaritan, Granite Gate, and Las Fuentes -- offer dozens of different floor plans ranging from studios that are less than 500 square feet to a penthouse of more than 1,700 square feet. Most common, though, are one- and two-bedroom apartments of roughly 600 to 1,000 square feet. Good Samaritan also offers casitas (900 to 1,400 square feet).

Each site requires a one-time fee that you pay before you move in, but these are not the massive buy-in fees that you may be familiar with from other parts of the country. They range from $50 to $300 at Good Samaritan to $2,500 at Alta Vista.

Good Samaritan in Prescott does have an option for its casitas of a largely refundable entrance fee coupled with smaller monthly payments, but there is no requirement that new residents choose this approach.

Apartments are unfurnished, but are outfitted with standard kitchen appliances - stove, refrigerator, etc., and with a washer/dryer if the apartment is designed with space for them.

When an apartment becomes available, it is typical for the carpet to be replaced and for the unit to be completely repainted. If you want colors other than the standard ones offered, Las Fuentes will even offer to paint your apartment whatever color you like - as long as you provide the paint.

The apartments in the different communities offer different appealing features. For example, at Granite Gate, each apartment has a striking view of the rocks of Granite Dells. At Good Samaritan in Prescott Valley, the apartments have bay windows. At Las Fuentes, the apartments tend to be larger, and most have walk-in pantries. In Alta Vista, apartment kitchens have granite counters and cherry hardwood cabinets.

Options for meals vary. At Alta Vista, no meals are included in the base rate, but they offer three meals a day in various upscale settings. Meals can be purchased one at a time, and monthly packages are also available. At Granite Gate, the base rate -- even for independent living - includes three meals a day.

Good Samaritan in Prescott Valley includes a mid-day meal 20 days a month in its base rate - and has no objection if residents bring storage containers with them at lunch, and take home some extra soup and/or salad for dinner. At Good Samaritan in Prescott, all meals are optional.

Las Fuentes offers three restaurant-style meals a day, and a variety of meal plans. Because it sells packages of meal tickets, residents typically don't lose money if they skip meals, even if they have signed up for a package plan, because the meal tickets do not expire.

Three important points to take away are: first, the apartment options for independent living in retirement communities are quite varied and each offers a different appeal.

Second, meal plans are often very flexible.

Third, if you've assumed that you wouldn't like any retirement community apartment or meal arrangements, you might be pleasantly surprised by the options available to you.

-- Next -- 083. What Is Independent Living Like in a Retirement Community?