Elderly Homes: Wait till Next Year

December 21, 1993

Wait until Jan. 3, to be precise. That's when the Baltimore County Council might finally reach a favorable decision on a bill to cut much of the expensive and time-consuming red tape that has discouraged private operators from opening group homes for the elderly.

The delay seems all too fitting. County officials have been kicking around this measure for years, and the time is long past for them to have put it on the books. Since Maryland started the group home program 17 years ago, neighborhood-based "assisted-living" residences for up to 15 seniors have been established in every state jurisdiction -- except in Baltimore County, the Maryland subdivision with the largest number of senior citizens and a rate of senior-population growth second only to Dade County, Fla., in the United States.

For residents of the group houses, the benefits include the personal service and home-like atmosphere not always found at nursing institutions, and a cost of care a fraction of that at a typical nursing home. Opponents also should note that the homes would be subject to tight state and federal regulations. Meanwhile, the county government would save money by reducing the number of nursing-home residents for whom the local Department of Aging provides advocacy, a process that absorbs staff hours and public dollars.

Most important, the supply of pleasant, affordable housing for Baltimore County's rapidly aging populace would be increased. Dozens of parties are on a waiting list for the county's permission to open group homes. All that's needed to meet the obvious demand is for the council to pass this bill.

But the proposal, sponsored by Republican William A. Howard of Fullerton, has met surprisingly strong opposition, primarily from Republicans Douglas B. Riley of Towson and Berchie Manley of Catonsville. In fact, at a Dec. 14 council session, Mr. Riley made a disparaging remark about "old people" that he later said was taken out of context -- a claim he made after he was lashed with criticism for the comment.

We'll have to take Mr. Riley's word that he is actually a champion of plentiful housing for Baltimore County's many seniors. But if he wants to prove it, he should throw his support behind this long-overdue legislation. It would make good sense for political as well as for practical reasons. After all, a lot of the councilman's constituents are "old people" who vote. The next election is less than a year away.

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