Coming Of Age

August 21, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

Not so long ago, the words retirement home conjured all-too-familiar images: starched uniforms and linoleum floors, wheelchairs and dinghy corridors, listless patients and antiseptic smells.

Today, the retirement home has matured, gracefully, into something altogether different: the retirement community, with apartments rivaling the most posh condos, landscaped sites that resemble small college campuses complete with health clubs and aquatic aerobics, putting greens and restaurants.

As Maryland and the nation as a whole gray at a faster pace than ever, more and more seniors have chosen these communities as an alternative to big, empty houses that can quickly become too much to handle after the kids have left the nest.

"If you look at the people who make up the senior population, most are homeowners and will tell you they want to stay right where they are -- and most succeed," said Ilene Rosenthal, chief of housing and long-term care for the Maryland Office on Aging. "But for many, a time comes when it's impractical to do that."

Developers with expertise in real estate, construction and hotel management, in turn, have joined nonprofit groups -- the traditional providers of senior housing -- in building retirement communities in recent years. And with residents moving in as much for the promise of long-term security as for the amenities, developers have increasingly built in some type of personal or medical care to cater to more than just the active senior.

The number of continuing-care communities -- which charge entrance and monthly fees that include access to health services -- has grown from 11 mostly run by nonprofits in 1980 to 28 today, according to the Maryland Office on Aging. Other types of retirement communities -- which do not charge entrance fees or offer health care directly -- have sprouted as well; the state does not regulate or track these.

In the past five years, developers have built hundreds of apartments and individual homes, including rentals, for-sale units, cooperatives and those requiring entrance and monthly fees, in communities such as Brightwood in Lutherville, North Oaks Life Care Community in Pikesville, Blakehurst Life Care Community in Towson, Vantage House in Columbia, Heron Point of Chestertown, Aspenwood Retirement Center in Silver Spring and the Classic Residence by Hyatt in Chevy Chase. More are on the way: Londonderry Retirement Community in Easton, Maplewood Park Place in Bethesda, Oak Crest Village in Parkville.

Their goal: Tap into the ever-growing demand for retirement housing among seniors like Fran Jacob.

Mrs. Jacob, a slender, seventysomething widow, found just what she was looking for -- which is to say a home, not a nursing home -- in May after selling the Towson rancher where she had lived for 25 years.

When she moved a few miles away to Blakehurst, many of her home's contents did, too. Her antique furniture -- a roll-top desk and marble-top bureau her husband refinished -- sits in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment. In the kitchen, Mrs. Jacob proudly shows her apothecary jars and prepares meals for friends who stop by to play bridge.

the year-old community set on 40 acres south of Joppa Road, with manicured lawns, private balconies and a well-stocked formal library, Mrs. Jacob says: "You don't feel like you're in 'the home.' You really start living again. It's not like the old days where you put Grandma in a home, and there she sat. I could have taken care of my house for several years, but I would like to be free of that. This way I can live just as graciously and be waited on."

It will cost you

But luxury senior living and pampering don't come cheap. Residents at the 177-unit Blakehurst pay entrance fees starting at $149,500 -- 90 percent of which is refunded to the resident or his estate after death -- for private housing and, when needed, care in the on-site health center. Monthly fees, which cover one daily meal in the dining room, maintenance, housekeeping, laundry service, utilities, transportation and activities, start at $1,646.

Seniors, who have the most per capita disposable income of any age group, have proved more than willing to shell out that much and more to be freed from the burdens of homeownership yet preserve their independence in communities offering activities and companionship.

Three and a half years ago, Judith DeBuys sold her home of 40 years in Ruxton because her four children live out of state. "It was no fun rattling around in a big house. I was having problems keeping up my house," she said.

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