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

What is independent living like in a retirement community? In a word, busy -- if you want it to be.

This article draws on information about several large retirement communities in the Prescott, Arizona area.

You may spend more time at meals than you have before, because you may enjoy talking with new friends. And you just might find the meals more appealing than the cheese sandwiches you'd been eating by default at home. At Good Samaritan in Prescott Valley, you may linger to enjoy live piano music often played by volunteers during lunch. Las Fuentes offers live music at its popular Thursday lunchtime buffet and at Saturday dinner.

Sample recent menu items for independent living residents at some of the retirement communities in town follow.

Granite Gate: marinated steak on garden salad; roast pork loin

Good Samaritan in Prescott Valley: chicken cordon bleu; beef and broccoli stir-fry

Alta Vista: filet mignon wrapped in bacon; chicken Parmesan with gluten-free pasta

Las Fuentes: lobster Newburg; chicken Wellington

Outside of meals, the sites offer a wide variety of activities, both on site and off site. All offer transportation services, and have their own buses to take people on outings, such as trips to casinos, ballgames, golf, swimming, parks and community cultural events such as concerts on the town square.

Music, gardening, movies, travelogues, art, Bible study and other religious and spiritual activities, crafts, yoga, stretching or other exercises activities, book groups, jigsaw puzzles, Wii fitness games, bingo, and other games are offered in most of the communities. A few activities reported at specific communities are noted here.

Good Samaritan: poker, pet therapy with visiting dogs, monthly birthday parties

Las Fuentes: trips to dinner theatrer in Phoenix; outings to new restaurants in Prescott; a Write Your Life class

Alta Vista: onsite Corvette car show; cooking demos; Granite Creek vineyards outing

Granite Gate: Rummikub (a game that reportedly "combines elements of rummy, dominoes, mah-jongg and chess,"); Lynx Lake outing; men's group

Support services for people in independent living are surprisingly extensive. For example, all four organizations offer transportation at no extra charge for doctors' appointments and shopping.

All four keep an eye out to make sure that people surface at least once a day. For example, at Las Fuentes, residents must press a button to turn off a blinking light on a call system in the bathroom by 10 a.m., or the staff will check on them.

Since three meals a day are included in the basic package at Granite Gate, if a resident doesn't show up for a meal, the staff will go look for them. Further, Granite Gate residents are all encouraged to wear emergency call pendants -- and the staff monitors battery life, and replaces batteries before they fail.

If you plan to be away for the day, or out of town for a while - or even simply prefer to sleep until noon -- it is a simple matter to let the staff know not to come looking for you until you expect to be available.

The most surprising fact about the arrangements in all of the communities is how flexible they are and how willing the staff is to try to meet your needs if you want -- or are interested in -- something that's not standard.

At Alta Vista, one of the residents has a granddaughter who is a kindergarten teacher. When the kindergarten puts on some kind of a show, Alta Vista provides a sign-up sheet and a bus, and a bus full of residents goes to see the 5-year-olds perform.

At Las Fuentes, staff from the physical therapy department goes to the fitness center once a week and will work with any resident on anything they want, at no charge. If people are in the hospital, staff from Resident Services will visit them, water their plants, pick up their mail, and take care of other things a resident may need until they come home.

At Granite Gate, a Residents' Council tells management what they want - such as benches and picnic tables outside - and management makes changes accordingly.

At Good Samaritan in Prescott, a rotating display gives residents a chance to showcase their hobbies, interests, and expertise for other residents.

-- Next -- 084. What Exactly Does Assisted Living Involve?