Group homes for the elderly

July 29, 1993

Baltimore County senior citizens and their advocates have long noted a frustrating irony about life in that jurisdiction.

Among all 24 Maryland subdivisions, the county ranks first in number of residents over the age of 60. About 138,000 of them live in the county now, and by the end of the decade, the figure should reach 144,000. Only Dade County, Fla., has a faster-growing number of elderly citizens than does Baltimore County, according to Phillip H. Pushkin, the director of the local department of aging.

Yet -- and here's the ironic part -- the county is the only Maryland jurisdiction that doesn't have even one state-certified, assisted-living group home for the elderly.

A major step toward remedying this situation was recently taken by the county's planning board. The panel approved a proposed zoning law change intended to cut through the expensive and time-consuming red tape that has discouraged private operators from opening such homes. The County Council will soon take up the matter and decide whether to pass the planning board's recommendation into law.

For the residents of these homes, each of which would serve four to 15 people, the benefits include the sort of personal service and home-like atmosphere not often found at nursing institutions. Also, the cost of care at a group house is about half that of a typical nursing home.

Meanwhile, the county government would save money by reducing the number of nursing-home residents for whom the department of aging provides advocacy -- itself a process that absorbs a lot of staff hours and public dollars.

Saving money is indeed an important goal, but the county's main concern must be to increase the supply of pleasant, affordable housing for its rapidly aging populace. More than 50 parties are on a waiting list for the county's permission to open group homes. The means to meet the demand is clearly there; all that's needed now is for the government to remove the obstacles that have blocked potential group-home operators in the past.

As Dr. Pushkin points out, Baltimore County is a wonderful place in which to retire, thanks to the region's first-rate leisure activities and top-notch medical care centers. However, the county will be an even better place for its senior residents once the County Council does the right thing by passing this much needed and long overdue revision of the zoning law.

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