John Erickson has some unusual ideas about what retirees want. So far, he's been right on the money. His Catonsville retirement community is one of the nation's largest - and it's still growing.


August 05, 1991|By Michael Pollick

John Erickson knows how to work a room.

Before he tells luncheon guests at the Charlestown Retirement Community about the fully-refundable entry deposit, the three levels of nursing care and the luxury apartments that are still available, he makes friends with them.

"Maybe you can give me a little idea of where you all come from," he suggests, revealing a Tennessee upbringing in his voice as it emanates from a wireless microphone system. Turning smoothly to make eye contact from one side of the large banquet hall to the other, he asks for the hundred or so guests, who range in age from early-60s to mid-80s, to raise their hands depending on where they're from.

Hands go up for Towson, Annapolis and "down toward Washington," but he finds that few hands go up for Catonsville.

He gets a laugh out of it. "I think most of Catonsville has already moved here, right?"

He almost is right. In 10 years, Mr. Erickson has built this 110-acre site in Catonsville into one of the largest and most successful retirement communities in the nation.

Thanks to some of his unorthodox ideas, Charlestown has become what Mr. Erickson likes to call a "university of senior living" -- and home for 1,350 oldsters. Average age of a "freshman" at this campus is 76.

"It's very popular, very successful, and looks very financially secure," said Washington writer Peter Vandevanter, who has included Charlestown in his forthcoming book, "Retirement Communities: The Best in the Washington Area."

"Charlestown is the only one I'm dealing with [in the book] in Baltimore, because it is so large, and because it does draw from Washington," he said.

The industry name for a place such as Charlestown is "continuing care retirement community" or CCRC. The designation means you can live a relatively independent life as long as you are able, but that various levels of nursing care are available on site should you need them.

It seems inevitable that at least some of the CCRCs of today will become known as the pioneers for many more to come. While people over 75 already account for 5 to 6 percent of the U.S. population, that is expected to double to 12 percent within 10 years.

Right now, there are about 700 CCRCs nationwide, taking care of about 210,000 residents, according to the American Association of Homes for the Aging, a Washington-based trade association. Within Maryland, notes Violet Sloat, program officer for continuing care at the Maryland Office on Aging, there are 26 CCRCs that take care of 7,300 residents. That's only about 1.5 percent of the state's elderly population, she says.

Within the continuing care category, there are many ways to run a community. Meals might be optional or included, or one meal a day might be included, as at Charlestown. The hefty entry deposit that is typically charged might be considered an endowment in return for a promise to take care of all future needs, or it might be partially refundable until five years have gone by, or it might be fully refundable to your heirs once the unit is re-occupied, as at Charlestown.

The chance that you'll need medical or nursing care might be built into the entry fee and monthly fee, almost like an insurance policy, or, as at Charlestown, it might be pay-as-you-go.

Mr. Erickson is confident that his formula, developed by trial and error as he created Charlestown from the site of an abandoned college campus, is the best single answer to the nation's inevitable Age-Wave explosion.

He offers residents a financial rationale for moving from their homes -- that it won't cost them a cent. The $80,000 deposit they will pay on a typical one-bedroom apartment is refundable, so they can sell their now-unmanageable home and use the equity to move here, confident that their heirs will get an inheritance. And then, using the pay-as-you-go plan for medical and other services makes Charlestown less expensive than many other CCRCs. The reason is that healthy residents don't end up paying for the nursing home care that a minority ends up requiring.

That one-bedroom goes for $800 per month for a single, with couples paying $330 for the extra person. This is in addition to the entry deposit. Most homeowners would conclude they are spending nearly that much on a home already, once they count taxes and repairs.

Most CCRCs, he says, aim at the wealthiest 5 percent of the elderly population. Using his method, he says, expands the potential market to 60 percent of the elderly. If they own a home, have Social Security and maybe a little bit of a pension, they can afford Charlestown, he says.

More than 600 people have written deposit checks for $1,000 each to give them a little higher priority when it comes time to empty out the attic and the basement, sell the house and head for Charlestown. There are nearly 200 others on "standby," meaning they are ready to move in whenever the right-sized unit opens up.

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