Small-town comforts turn Towson gray Almost one-fifth of population elderly

December 09, 1990|By Lynda Robinson

When Hilda Wilson's friends started getting together to play bridge 52 years ago, seven of the eight women lived in Towson.

They still do.

In fact, they live even closer to each other now than they did in 1938. Six members of the bridge club have moved to Edenwald, a life-care retirement community right across the street from the Towson Town Center.

Mrs. Wilson, 85, who moved to Edenwald with her husband, Raymond, in 1985, says that she never considered retiring to Florida or Arizona.

"We know Towson," she explained. "We know the people. Everything connected to our lives is in Towson."

The determination of people like Mrs. Wilson to stay in their hometown has helped turn Towson -- usually thought of as the Baltimore County seat or a college hangout -- into a mecca for senior citizens.

More than 10,000 people over the age of 65 live in and around Towson, giving it the densest population of elderly people in a graying county, according to Barbara Gradet, outgoing director of the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

Almost one of every five people who live in Towson is a senior citizen, almost twice as many as in the county as a whole.

While its sheer numbers are no match, Towson's percentage of elderly residents exceeds even that of Dade County, Fla., home of the well-known retirement community of Miami Beach.

The majority of seniors live in the same houses and neighborhoods where they raised their children.

"Our children are here or near here," said Ruth Jones, 78, who has lived in Anneslie with her husband, Fred, for 35 years.

"Even if the children moved away, I guess we'd stay," Mrs. Jones said. "We're just established here."

But hundreds of other seniors are newcomers who have taken up residence in Towson's high-rise apartments and condominiums.

Originally from Baltimore or surrounding suburbs, they value Towson's small-town compactness, which lets them walk to the library, post office, bank and mall.

"You have everything right at your fingertips," said Evelyn Johnson, 71, who sold her house in the Waverly section of Baltimore three years ago and moved to Virginia Towers, a federally subsidized apartment building for the elderly and disabled in East Towson.

Miss Johnson was mugged twice while she was living in the city, and a problem with her left leg made it difficult for her to manage the steps at her house.

She feels safer in Towson and gets around pretty easily without a car.

"Being able to walk places is important," she said.

"Lots of people are here for the convenience."

Even more seniors would come to Towson if there were space for them, said Melvin J. Knott, manager for Timothy House.

Timothy House is an apartment complex being planned for elderly people with low to moderate incomes.

While financing for the project is still being put together by the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Towson, Timothy House already has received 125 applications for its 112 apartments, Mr. Knott said.

Towson's popularity with seniors has had a significant impact on the town's character. Other than a few bars that attract students from Goucher College and Towson State University, Towson's streets are empty at night.

"The sidewalks roll up in Towson," Mrs. Gradet said, "and that's because it is an older population."

Local restaurants such as Dici Naz Vellegia start getting busy at 5 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., as seniors arrive to take advantage of bargain-priced early bird specials. Owner Naz Vellegia said more than a third of his customers were elderly.

The same is true at the Towson Superfresh on Dulaney Valley Road, where a shuttle bus from the high-rises brings about 300 seniors to do their shopping every Monday and Friday, according to store manager Ted Quatman.

To meet their needs, the store stocks lots of low-cholesterol and low-salt products and single-serving packages of meat and poultry.

Sugary cereals favored by children are relegated to the high, hard-to-reach shelves on the breakfast aisle, while a large selection of bran cereals dominates the coveted eye-level shelves.

Seniors are also heavy users of the Towson library, although some have trouble walking up the building's distinctive circular ramp, said branch manager Cornelia Ives.

The library circulates about 900 large-print books, which are used primarily by the elderly.

Large-print books will get their own section in the library next year when an addition to the building is finished, Ms. Ives said.

Plenty of Towson's seniors, of course, don't need large-type books. Affluent and active, they relish shattering people's stereotypes of the elderly.

Count Beulah "Boo" Georges among them.

With her dark, auburn hair and lightly lined skin, Mrs. Georges looks too young to belong to the Bykota Senior Center in West Towson, where the minimum age for membership is 60.

She acknowledges that she qualifies, but she won't be more specific about her age.

"I get carded periodically," she said with a dramatic wave of her hand.

"It's my greatest joy to prove it."

She works part time as a real estate agent, teaches a class for seniors in creative expression and keeps in shape by taking aerobics classes at Bykota, which is housed in the old Towson High School.

Mrs. Georges knows the building well.

She attended high school there and, after graduating from college, taught English there for a few years.

So she finds herself working out in the same gymnasium that she decorated for her senior prom decades ago.

Like other long-time residents, Mrs. Georges' roots in Towson are too deep to transplant anywhere else.

She is growing old in the town where she grew up.

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