Seniors seeking more than a home Amenities, activities, health care are draws of retirement complexes

September 02, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

More and more Marylanders are living their twilight years in style.

Upscale retirement communities are growing rapidly across the nation and in Maryland, where the number has nearly doubled, to 29, since 1980.

And nowhere are they more prominent than in Baltimore County, which has an even dozen, ranging in size from Glenarm's pastoral Glen Meadows, with its intimate campus of 262 residents, to granddaddy Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, which opened in 1983 and has 2,500 residents.

The attraction: a range of living styles, from apartments to nursing care, as well as security and nonstop activities.

At Charlestown, for example, the daily whirlwind provides aerobics and more than 50 clubs and classes. Residents choose from six restaurants on the 110-acre campus. And they live in deluxe apartments with panoramic views -- a far cry from the drab institutional-green rooms in some rest homes.

Charlestown even has a happy hour -- complete with bowls of peanuts -- at 4 p.m. each day.

"It's like a big vacation," says Jennings Brinsfield, 80, who moved to Charlestown 2 1/2 years ago with his wife, Marie, 73.

The Brinsfields left a spacious Colonial in Ellicott City with a prize-winning garden for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit overlooking woods and a nature trail. It even has a gallery lined with Marie Brinsfield's watercolors, a hobby that began with classes at Charlestown.

The Brinsfields have no regrets about their move.

"We came here to live and enjoy the rest of our lives," Marie Brinsfield says. "We wanted 20 years of easy living."

Easy, yes. Dull, never.

On a recent day, the Brinsfields were on the go early. The amiable couple, who were both widowed when they met and married eight years ago, left their apartment at 7: 45 a.m. so Jennings could walk his wife to her water exercise class before continuing his daily, mile-long stride along Charlestown's climate-controlled walkways.

After an hour of bending, kicking and even doing the hula in the indoor pool, Marie Brinsfield, who had a quadruple bypass two years ago, joined her husband and about a dozen other seniors in the health center for another workout. The exercisers used conditioning machines while "Regis and Kathie Lee" and "Charlestown Today" aired on an overhead television.

Yes, the retirement community even has its own closed-circuit television studio, which broadcasts a daily talk show and listings of events.

"I was blown away by [the residents'] willingness to learn, and their refusal to just sit and do nothing," says wellness manager Bob Katz, one of the community's 1,200 employees.

Charlestown, like other continuing-care retirement communities, offers independent-living apartments for the healthy and assisted-living and nursing-home-style care for the infirm.

"It takes a big load off your children," says Jennings Brinsfield, a trim, retired Army lieutenant colonel who has an adult son and daughter.

Of course, this lifestyle comes at a price. A refundable entrance fee at Charlestown ranges from $48,000 for the smallest efficiency to $276,000 for the grandest unit. Monthly charges range from $750 to $1,500; care facilities cost more.

The Charlestown Care Center, part of the community, came under scrutiny in a 1995 Consumer Reports article on nursing homes across the nation. The magazine reported that the center had been cited by state officials for several infractions, including failure to get timely medical care for a 98-year-old who was seriously ill and staff ignoring juice spilled on the floor.

Charlestown officials say both incidents were misrepresented. "We routinely, even weekly, operate the care center at full capacity. We would have empty beds if Consumers Reports was true," says spokesman Mel Tansill.

The daughter of the 98-year-old wrote a letter to Consumer Reports, which appeared in the magazine, dismissing the charges. "I have seen her treatment and can verify that she was never ignored or neglected."

A May inspection of Charlestown turned up no violations, says Tori Leonard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which monitors nursing homes.

Charlestown's popularity mirrors a national trend, aging specialists say. Almost 1,000 continuing-care retirement communities have been built in the past decade. And new ones are in the works, including Buckingham's Choice, expected to open in Frederick County in 1999.

"A growing portion of people are older, and people are living longer," says Jennie Keith, a Swarthmore (Pa.) College anthropology professor and author of "The Aging Experience." "As the years go by, people are becoming more familiar with this type of [continuing-care] community.

"That is one reason they are spreading. . . . But rock bottom, what is attractive is security."

Charlestown is not immune to crime. In August, police arrested a man suspected of robbing a couple of a gold coin at their apartment; he apparently scaled a fence around the property.

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