'It's Not An Old Folks Home'

July 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — One of the core values of the continuum-of-care model is that individuals who enter these communities at an earlier age will age healthier, happier, and with a guarantee that their needs for future care will be met.

Unfortunately, the "rest home" perception of retirement communities presents an enormous challenge when it comes to marketing the entry-level, independent-living units central to these communities.

In a continuing care retirement community, services are flexible to the needs of the aging residents. As designed, residents buy into a facility when they are still healthy, active and generally a bit younger. At this stage, the community differs only slightly from condominium living. Options range from one-bedroom apartments to spacious town homes, and residents often do their own cooking, cleaning and driving. This area's top-shelf independent living communities include amenities such as health clubs, beauty salons, restaurants, banks and a host of other options. Laundry, health care, meal service and other basic services are also available.

As residents age, their needs change, from independent to assisted living, and finally, to skilled nursing. A continuing care retirement community is able to serve all those needs.

"If you're able to buy into one of these facilities from the independent-living end, it's really a good idea in that you're taken care of for life," said Mike Faber, coordinator of Grand Rapids Community College's Older Learner Center.

"What we tend to see, though, is that people who go into those communities also tend to be people in an older age bracket — 70s, 80s and beyond. I think most of these communities target 60s and above, but traditionally, retirement communities have not been successful marketing to that population."

Faber said the communities are well situated to serve a slightly younger group than they traditionally have. For generations, however, older adults have viewed retirement communities as "old folks homes" and have approached the aging process with disdain.

"Most people don't ever want to think about the fact that they're one day going to get older," he said.

Studies show that between 80 percent and 90 percent of people would choose to stay at home compared to moving into a retirement community. Studies have also shown the No. 1 reason cited for entering a retirement community is a desire to no longer have to maintain a home, a need that is also served by condominium developments.

Faber said that sentiment will be particularly troublesome for the 77-million-strong baby boomer generation, the eldest of whom are entering their 60s at a rate of 10,000 a day. An agent of change throughout its history, this generation is expected to transform what is thought of as retirement. Baby boomers aren't going to want to associate themselves with terms such as "senior," "older" or "elder," Faber said, and will likely even bristle at "retired."

"They're going to want to stay active," Faber said. "They're going to want a model that integrates learning, leisure and work."

That model is already being adopted by many current independent-living residents. At Covenant Village of the Great Lakes in Grand Rapids, residents volunteer their time at churches and organizations throughout the city, working in health care, education and the arts. Over 80 percent of residents are active in the facility's health club.

"There is this perception that retirement living is where people come to die," said Brian Mack, Covenant Village marketing director. "We can offer these folks the opportunity to pursue their heart's desire — spiritual, mental and social."

The majority of residents at Michigan Christian Home hails from within a five-mile radius of the facility site just outside of East Grand Rapids.

"The old folks home concept has seen its time," said Michigan Christian Home President Jeff Heugli. "We try to reconnect residents to the community they come out of."

When residents move in, they maintain relationships with church, friends and family. This is true at most of the region's independent-living facilities. Would-be residents usually gravitate toward whatever facility is nearest their current home. At Holland Home in Grand Rapids, for instance, there is a waiting list for the Raybrook campus, a few blocks south of East Grand Rapids, but not for the upper-scale Breton Woods community, located near the Kentwood border.

"I just met one of the residents from Raybrook and he said, 'People ask me how I can go live in an old folks home,'" said Sylvia Simons, Holland Home COO. "He said, 'I don't live in an old folks home. My wife and I are extremely active. I winter in California, I'm extremely active — I love it.'"

At the Breton Woods facility in particular, Simons has seen a strong sense of community develop among residents. She can walk into the campus's large common area almost any night and find 30 to 60 residents reveling and socializing. During the day, they have access to a vast number of education and leisure programs. Last year, a group of residents organized an ocean cruise trip.

"One of the things that many of our residents say when they come in is 'I wish I had done this sooner,'" said Bob Perl, executive director of Clark Retirement Community Inc. "I think that there are definite advantages in people doing this at a time when they can form strong relationships and take full advantage of the various life-enhancing activities that take place."

Research shows that individuals who stay actively engaged in a community and have the opportunity to "exercise the gray matter" — according to Covenant Village's Mack — will retain cognitive functions longer and have a higher quality of life. The University of Michigan produced one such study in 2004, with research professor Deborah Keller-Cohen determining that individuals with a wider range of relationships experienced significantly less cognitive decline as they aged.

"It's interesting that seniors that move in who do have needs or are lonely or depressed, their quality of life, outlook and sometimes physical condition drastically improve," said Heugli.

Paula Molner, a 21-year veteran of the Sentinel Pointe Retirement Community in Grand Rapids, has seen dramatic improvements in residents' lives.

"They (begin) eating regularly, taking medication regularly. They can become more independent again, just because they are in better health," she said. "Their spirits perk up because they're around other people."

This is a common occurrence for residents who had been living alone.

"When you live in your own condo, home or apartment, and it's winter and you don't drive, you're just there all the time by yourself," said Molner.

Sentinel Pointe does not offer a full continuum of care; other arrangements must be made for individuals requiring skilled nursing or hospice care. Because of this, Sentinel Pointe is not able to offer the same lifelong service guarantee as its peers.

This does not necessarily create a problem, however, and the facility is very often still the last home a resident will have. Molner noted one couple who moved in still worked full time into their 70s. They lived in the apartment for 20 years, until their recent passing.

"When you talk about value, it's the greater sense of security and knowing you'll have access to the services you'll need," said Mark McCulloch, vice president of marketing and public relations for Porter Hills Retirement Community and Services. "When you look at the amount of available residences and what the demand will be in the future, you can put two and two together."

By 2030, roughly half of the U.S. population will be age 50 or older.

"The labels and the perception might scare people away," GRCC's Faber said. "But instead of being able to enjoy a few more good years of independent living, they'll quickly end up in assisted living or nursing, because they waited too long. … And there won't be enough of that to go around."    

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