Group homes rise as option for elderly County sees surge for alternative to nursing homes

September 14, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Tucked away in Howard County neighborhoods, where houses usually feature basketball hoops and bicycles, is an exploding number of homes outfitted instead with extra handrails on the walls and sit-down elevators running along the stairways.

In this county, the number of small group homes for the elderly certified by the state Office on Aging has skyrocketed from 10 in 1990 to 56 today, an increase of 460 percent.

The number of larger homes licensed by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also has increased, although exact figures are not available, state officials said.

The reason is that people are living longer and someone has to care for them. In Howard County, 22,000 residents were older than 60 last year. By 2005, that number is expected to shoot up to 34,739, a rise of 58 percent, according to the Office on Aging.

"The children, you find, can't deal with [their parents] anymore," said Gwen Frank, co-owner with Elaine Margolis of two group homes called AAH-TUL Care. "For us, it is all we know, so we can give it all we can. We have a good old time."

State officials on aging encourage the growth of such assisted-living homes, which they see as an affordable, neighborhood-based alternative to nursing homes, a place for people who don't need complete nursing care but do need help in day-to-day living. The office certifies homes housing two to 15 people.

"We wanted to make sure that Howard County had housing alternatives," Phyllis Madachy, director of the county's Office on Aging, said of the growth of group homes in the county. Madachy's office holds monthly meetings for potential providers and just finished training low- to moderate-income people to work in an assisted-living facility or to run one of their own.

Tighter rules considered

There is talk on the state level of putting all such homes under more stringent regulations administered by the state health department, a move that some state officials on aging say could force smaller operators -- now certified by the Office on Aging -- out of business.

In Howard County -- unlike in other metropolitan counties, where such homes often have spurred neighborhood opposition -- group homes appear to have sprung up quietly and relatively easily. Most are in the Columbia and Ellicott City areas.

Neighbors and care providers say concerns about traffic and property values arose when the homes opened, but for the most part, those concerns have been resolved.

One home in Howard has sparked a debate similar to those that rage in many Baltimore County neighborhoods. The controversy over the proposed expansion of Richard Colandrea's Bryant Woods Inn on Waterfowl Terrace in Columbia's Wilde Lake village went to a federal appeals court. Colandrea's bid to expand was denied in a decision that affirmed the primacy of zoning regulations over federal laws barring discrimination against the handicapped.

Further litigation against Colandrea's business by the Columbia

Association on a covenant issue is pending.

Waterfowl Terrace neighbors complained that an expansion of one of Colandrea's two homes would lead to increased traffic congestion. They also worried how much Colandrea would expand.

"Essentially, it's a commercial business," said Philip Kirsch, president of the Bryant Woods Neighborhood Association, which opposed the expansion.

For Frank and Margolis, their decision to become involved in group homes centered on what they said was a desire to provide a service for the community. Their nonprofit AAH-TUL homes are struggling to stay afloat, said Margolis, a former real estate agent.

She said she decided to start a home after she was horrified at what she saw when she tried to find a nursing home for her mother in Florida.

Four years ago, when they opened their first home on Wind Dance Way in Columbia's Long Reach village. It is a wood-shingled house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Inside, the walls in the front hall are covered with pictures of the elderly residents. Underneath one set of photos is a wooden plaque that reads, "Family."

"We sort of adopt them," Margolis said as she kissed one resident, gathered with two others in the living room watching a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie.

"For us, this was sort of a dedication for what we could not do for our own families, we could do for others."

Residents are usually brought by families, sometimes from nursing homes or hospitals.

Familylike feeling

Their Columbia and Clarksville houses are filled with pictures of residents' families and decorated with lively, floral prints. The residents -- who now number eight -- have private or semiprivate rooms.

Each room has a name on the door and notes about the medication the resident takes.

But no starched white uniforms are seen: Margolis, Frank and the other caregivers wear pants and sneakers.

Margolis and Frank can recite what each resident in the two houses likes and does not like, the family history and the daily routine.

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