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Columbia pioneers call Vantage House home

Howard County Times

Helen Ruther remembers when a new retirement community was nearing completion in 1990 off Little Patuxent Parkway, directly across from the downtown Columbia townhouse where she and her husband, Martin, had lived for decades.

The Ruthers – who came to Columbia in 1967 from Albany, N.Y., after Ruther took a job with Medicare at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn – had been among the first 100 families to move into James Rouse's planned community.

While it's been nearly 50 years since they were first dubbed Columbia pioneers, the couple decided two years ago that "it was time to do something a little different" lifestyle-wise and chose to move into at Vantage House, the retirement community on Vantage Point Road.

"We both wanted to stay here," said Ruther, who is 85 and serves on the Town Center Village Board. "We looked elsewhere, but it just wasn't Columbia."

As Vantage House celebrates its 25th anniversary as a not-for-profit, privately owned corporation, more and more long-time residents who want to stay put in the city they helped build and have loved for many decades are moving in, said executive director Meriann Ritacco.

"When I first started working here eight years ago the majority of our residents were transplants" from other cities, Ritacco said of the 292-unit facility. "Now, about 70 percent are true Columbians and Howard County residents."

In fact, since July 1, 2014 just over 82 percent of Vantage House's newest residents have been from Howard County, she said.

Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who was Howard County executive when Vantage House opened, looked on as many county residents moved their parents to Vantage House from around the country, but has observed that trend changing as the county's population ages.

"More than a few early Columbians who had left their families behind to move here because of Jim Rouse's philosophy wanted their aging parents to also live here," said Bobo, who ended her 40-year political career when she retired as a state delegate last year.

"Now the early Columbians themselves are moving to Vantage House in droves. Eight of my closest friends have moved there in recent years, and two are moving in the next few months. It's been a very good facility to have in the community."

Marvin Thomas, who moved to Howard County from New York in 1963 to become the county library's first professional director, is also a Columbia pioneer who now resides in Vantage House with his wife, Marcia.

"When we got here it was a very rural county with a population of 36,000 and Columbia was just being planned," recalled Thomas, who retired in 1996.

"When we decided recently that it was time to make a move from our three-story townhouse we knew we wanted to stay in Columbia. We feel very much at home in Howard County."

The couple moved in 2013 to one of the 222 independent living units at Vantage House, and renovated two apartments to create one larger one. There are also 26 assisted living units and 44 skilled comprehensive care units located in the building's health center.

"It's almost like homecoming week, and I'm sure everyone else has the same feeling," he said.

"While we are still very much attuned to the Washington area, we are spending even more time here than we initially thought we would because there is so much going on," said Thomas, who is 84.

Some of the programs Thomas enjoys include Great Decisions and News and Views, which are both discussion groups on current events; and the near-nightly musical performances. He even stepped out of his comfort zone to join the Actor's Workshop led by fellow Vantage House resident Prudence Barry.

Barry, an actress and co-founder of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, has lived in Columbia since 1970 and just moved into Vantage House last year.

"I was drawn to their philosophy of enabling residents to find ways of sharing their passions," said Barry, who also oversees Words Matter, a poetry and drama appreciation group, and is working to start a camera club.

"I wanted to have an opportunity to be creative and make a contribution and I found that here," she said, noting she had also checked out five other retirement communities in the vicinity.

Helen Ruther echoed that sentiment, explaining that in 1967 – when Route 29 was a two-lane, undivided road and there wasn't much under construction in Columbia except Bryant Gardens and a few houses on Green Mountain Circle – there were no organizations to join.

"If you wanted something you had to build it from the ground up," she recalled, noting she had helped established the Columbia Film Society in 1968 with a woman she'd befriended at a neighborhood pool. "It was an adventure."

Ruther retired in 2001 after working as a Columbia Association covenant adviser for 18 years and had also served as the first Columbia representative to the planning board from 1972 to 1986.

Vantage House provides a way to continue to take advantage of the creativity that still flourishes in Columbia, Ruther said, and that provides a great sense of community and continuity.

Ritacco agreed.

"There's a great spirit among residents and employees, and it's such a wonderful collaboration," she said. "We really like hanging out together."

She noted that 13 percent of Vantage House's population had typically been couples, but that figure had recently grown to 18 percent.

"There's a misconception that moving here is based solely on a time of need when it's often based on a time of desire," she said. "Residents don't want to do two moves, so they're moving directly into the community to be ready for that future point in time when one or both of them need care."

She also said that Vantage House is currently working to reposition its master plan by converting 10 enhanced living units – which were originally aimed at residents who required a level of care that fell between independent and assisted living – into a dedicated memory support unit for residents with cognitive loss.

Vantage House completed a certificate in September for a memory support program from the Hearthstone Institute titled, "I'm Still Here," in which all employees were trained.

"The county's population is aging," Ritacco said, "and we're trying to focus on having the appropriate resources available for our residents."

Ruther said the comprehensive package of health care services Vantage House provides is definitely a big draw.

"Coming here made it much easier to make the move since it's a big move to make, both emotionally and physically," she said. "You have to recognize that this is the last stage of your life, and Vantage House is a great place for that."

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