Our House is tucked away in a wooded, Westlake neighborhood, a rare 9-acre pocket sheltered from the suburban sprawl and rush-hour crush that jams The Promenade shopping district just around the corner. Inside the senior-living facility, modest rooms are close ringers for Hampton Inn suites and communal conveniences double as social hubs for its 76 residents, each of whom relocated from longtime roots for a supportive new home.
"I just had to go somewhere," says Marcella Henz. The 89-year-old's blue eyes are still lively behind silver-rimmed bifocals. "I'm prone to falling; that is what brought me here. After my last fall, my nephew said, You can't go back to your apartment. You can't live alone.' "
Home for Henz was Fairview Park, where she'd made friends, raised children and watched family pass away. Her last home before Our House was an apartment she lived in for 25 years. "That's a long time," she confirms with a nod.
When Henz and a social worker explored assisted-living options, they found none suitable in Fairview Park. Her hometown is full of apartment buildings, but the city, like many inner-ring suburbs, hosts few assisted-living options.
On the other hand, towns such as Westlake have room to grow and are filling in empty lots with living options suitable for seniors. Westlake offers 11 facilities and counting, points out Marguerite Van Derwyst, director of Our House.
All that construction isn't just meant to fill today's needs, but also looks to future demand. Research predicts that by 2030, there will be twice as many senior citizens in the U.S. as there are now. The baby-boom generation will be in their late 60s, early 70s and 80s, and people will be living longer.
While perimeter suburbs are carving places for longtime dwellers like Henz to call home, mature, developed communities are looking for ways to keep others like her from leaving.
The Inner Ring
"Most [Fairview Park] seniors want to stay here," observes Nell Ellis, director of the Fairview Park senior center. "They raised families here and when they can no longer stay in their home, they do have to go outside of Fairview." The senior center sets up lunch dates at six West Side facilities for Fairview residents so they can consider alternatives. "Or we arrange for representatives to visit them at their homes if they can't go out to see facilities," adds Ellis.
Shaker Heights, too, faces construction constraints. When seniors are forced to move because of health downturns, many have to look outside the city limits. But Shaker has built two assisted-living facilities in the last 10 years.
"Eleven years ago, if you wanted to stay in Shaker in an assisted-living facility, you couldn't, but now you can," says Marie Prendergast, an outreach worker for the city. "The two facilities in Shaker allow seniors to just change their addresses. They can keep the same doctor and see the same friends."
Some residents, like Josephine Rich, are fortunate. "We wanted to stay in Shaker where we had roots," says the 85-year-old, who lives independently with her husband in a four-bedroom apartment at Judson Retirement Community. "We like our doctors, our dentists and our church. And we are much more comfortable staying within five miles of where we have spent the last 40 years."
The emotional drain of moving out and moving on is tiring, Rich notes. She reads a lot about senior wellness — staying healthy, eating right and being active — and never misses her exercise classes at Judson. Still, "as you age, adjusting to change becomes more difficult," she says. "Familiarity gives you a sense of security, it really does."
Most seniors feel that way, says Debbie Arntz, manager of housing and related services for the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging. Assisted-living facilities generally target residents within eight miles. Close is comfortable.
Cities that can't find the room for new facilities, but want to keep their elderly residents in town, have other options. One is to embrace natural trends. Apartment complexes where the senior majority rules often morph into naturally occurring retirement communities.
"Some apartment buildings start out with people who are fairly independent and then, over a matter of time, the seniors who live there need more services," says Carol Rich, supervisor for Cleveland Heights' office on aging. "Through various funding, those services can be delivered into those apartment buildings."
Senior citizens are often the foundation of a community, points out Susanna Niermann O'Neil, Cleveland Heights' director of community services. The city's tagline, "A City of a Lifetime," spells out the community's family-tree feel, she says. Its seniors don't want to be uprooted. "Our seniors are vital to our organizations and so, frequently, they want to stay in Cleveland Heights," O'Neil says. "We try to make it easy for them."
Cleveland Heights' 900 subsidized rental units in the Severance area offer a lower-cost option, she notes. Further, Rich points out that the city is negotiating plans to develop several buildings with the federal government. But qualifying residents must fit into a below-median-income bracket and pay a third of their monthly financial allowance in rent. Not every senior's fiscal profile fits this mold.
Older communities also try to help the elderly stay in their homes. "People want to be independent for as long as possible," says Arntz. She knew a senior who was so adamant about staying in her home that she turned the living room into sleeping quarters after it became too hard for her to climb the stairs to her bedroom. "The rest of her house was vacated and she was sleeping in her La-Z-Boy chair."
This scenario is not an isolated incident. Outreach is a lifeline for those who age quietly at home. Cities' senior centers often help. Transportation, physical activities, camaraderie and even card games are
hallmarks of senior facilities. Providing these comforts allows seniors to age at home, where many of them prefer to stay.
Fairview Park's senior center, which includes a wellness center, also provides a social network. Some seniors come by for meals and health meetings. Others simply stop in for morning coffee and conversation. In Shaker Heights, exercise and health classes for seniors are packed, Prendergast says.
Delivering services to seniors without moving them into assisted housing creates what's known as a "virtual retirement community." That's a viable solution for inner-ring suburbs that struggle to place seniors, says Cynthia Dunn, president and CEO of Judson Retirement Community.
Judson has started a program, Judson Partners, that connects seniors in Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs to support services. Participants can use Judson's pool, fitness center and wellness classes, and can obtain referrals for home maintenance service providers. Priority for short-term rehabilitation at the facility is also included in the $60 monthly fee, Dunn says.
"I do think this concept is the wave of the future," she adds. "We want to partner with seniors to help them appreciate the aging experience, which is something we are all going through."
The Outer Ring
Family ties prompt many seniors to move to facilities in different communities. Such is the case for Westlake resident Terry Tracy and his mother, Jean, who moved from Parma to Our House last year, after her husband passed away.
Terry, president of First Federal of Lakewood, sums up his mother's perspective on Parma life this way: "There was only one place on this globe that you could possibly be happy, and that was Parma, Ohio." Living in Westlake, he drove 45 minutes each way to Parma several times a week to visit with his mother before she moved to Our House. Jean had always told her son she preferred to stay in Parma, but when they sorted through options, pickings were slimmer than she'd expected.
"Parma didn't have anything of this type," says Jean, 89. She sits in the dining room at Our House, her "senior blonde" hair neatly styled. Jean says she misses her friends and longs for her husband, Walter. She reminisces about her 30 years of volunteering at Parma Community Hospital. Today, life is different. But Jean says her son can now "buzz right over" to visit.
Proximity to family eases the transition for seniors, even if they must leave their hometowns, Ellis notes. So construction of new senior housing is popping up in other growing communities, such as Solon and Strongsville, as well.
In Strongsville, three assisted-living facilities and one independent community cater to the city's building and population boom, says Barbara Nyegran, director of Strongsville's Office on Aging. As young families move in, so do the grandparents.
"Research indicates that most older adults would like to live within a 15- to 20-minute ride from their children," Nyegran says. "That is the reason that many of the buildings are going up here and people prefer living in this community."
East and South side suburbs will soon become hotbeds for assisted- and independent-living construction, just like the West Side, predicts Eileen Regan, Solon's director of senior services. "I don't think that demand is greater on the West Side, but they have a lot more available land than we do," she says.
"We have a number of residents who are LTSRs — longtime Solon residents — and they can no longer take care of their homes because of poor health or they are widowers and no longer want to stay in their homes," Regan says. "They are looking for independent senior housing. That is our greatest call right now."
Mature Solon residents don't have to drive far to find senior-living options: Stratford Commons in nearby Glenwillow, Anna Maria of Aurora and Emerald Ridge of Solon.
This month, Solon residents will vote on a city issue that would create special zoning for independent senior dwellings. A second vote would allow a specific project to be built to answer the demand, Regan says. That project's residents would lean on the services at the city's senior center, which opened last year, and enjoy the benefits of living in a community designed for mature adults.
"The location is a stone's throw from [the senior center], adjacent [to] the library and close to stores like Giant Eagle," Regan notes. "That type of independent-living community is the most crucial step between leaving your home and [entering] a nursing home."
12:00 AM EST
October 25, 2004