The County That Creaks

August 02, 1993

If Baltimore is The City That Reads, then the subdivision encircling the city could be called The County That Creaks.

Among all 24 Maryland subdivisions, Baltimore County has the highest number of senior residents. About 138,000 people over the age of 60 live in the county now. By the year 2000, the figure should reach 144,000. The local Department of Aging says only Dade County, Fla., has a faster-growing number of elderly citizens than does Baltimore County.

So it's ironic -- not to mention downright negligent -- that the county is the only Maryland jurisdiction not to have even one state-certified, assisted-living group home for the elderly.

However, the county planning board recently took a major step toward remedying this situation. It gave its approval to a proposed zoning law change intended to cut through the costly, time-consuming thicket of bureaucratic red tape that has discouraged private operators from opening such homes. The County Council will decide soon whether to pass the planning board's recommendation into law.

Described by one Department of Aging official as "essentially a boarding house for seniors where help comes in," each of these residences would serve four to 15 people. The benefits for clients 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.

An incentive for the county government is to save money by reducing the number of nursing-home residents for whom the Department of Aging routinely provides advocacy, which itself is a costly and time-consuming process.

Cutting government expense is an important goal, but the county's primary concern must be to increase the supply of pleasant, affordable housing for its rapidly aging populace. In another progressive move last year, county voters approved a $600,000 bond for the construction of houses for the elderly and low- to moderate-income people. Yet as one county official said at the time, "That's a drop in the bucket" compared to the need.

The cup could run over, though, if the zoning law change takes effect; more than 50 parties are on a waiting list for the county's permission to open group homes.

This revision of the zoning law is much needed and long overdue. The County Council should do the right thing and pass it.

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