At 30, Charlestown Retirement Community comes of age

Engelina van Opstal remembers having a problem with the air conditioning in her apartment at Charlestown Retirement Community and calling for someone to come repair it.

"John came," van Opstal recalled Thursday, "and he got it working."


That would be John C. Erickson, who 30 years ago opened Charlestown on the grounds of a former seminary in Catonsville, the first of what would become a chain of 16 retirement communities in nine states. Erickson, who sold the company in 2010, returned Thursday for what he called "a big homecoming" to help residents and staff celebrate Charlestown's 30th anniversary.

"We were all family," said van Opstal, 91, one of the "pioneers" who moved in during the first months of what was then a fairly new concept: a senior complex that, with its own medical center, would allow residents to remain even as they required greater assistance and nursing care.


"Everyone who moved in was a new part of the family," said van Opstal, a retired supervisor of food services for Baltimore schools.

Over the years, Charlestown has become less of a family and more of a city, with some 2,300 residents, its own television station and polling precinct, and hundreds of clubs and activities. Thursday's birthday celebration included a ribbon cutting on a newly renovated building, Charlestown Square, a gathering space with a fitness center, salon and pool.

Erickson, who sold the company for $365 million several years ago after filing for bankruptcy, remains a beloved figure there. One speaker at the celebration joked about how he's been memorialized in Charleston — first in a portrait, then in a bronze statue that stands in a fountain, and now on one of its streets, which has been renamed "Erickson Way."

Residents hugged their community's founder, who lives in Annapolis and Florida, and asked for his autograph on their programs and on copies of a history of Charlestown written by John J. Strumsky Jr., who moved to the community two years ago.

"It's just amazing to see all the residents come out for this," Erickson said, marveling at how many of them settled on the steps of the building after all the seats were taken. "One of the things that gives me great joy is to let go of what I've built. If you do it right, it has its own life."

Van Opstal said she and her husband, Jacob, who was known as Jaap, had looked at several other retirement homes when they decided to give up their Mount Washington home. "It never attracted us," the Dutch native said of the other places, calling them "cold and restricted."

She remains in the same apartment, in Building One, that they moved into in 1983. Her husband, a noted music teacher for city schools and the former Baltimore Junior College, died 18 years ago, and van Opstal said she enjoys the companionship of her neighbors, especially those who share her hobbies of needlework and gardening — she is the caretaker of the colorful African violets that line the passageway between Buildings One and Two that residents have dubbed "the scenic route."

"You lose many, many friends — that's something you have to get used to. It's part of life," she said.

Her friend Betty Nicholson, also 91, is another "pioneer," having moved to Charlestown in May 1984. She grew up several blocks away on Westgate Road, but had been living in Annandale, Va., when her brother noticed a sign for the new community and encouraged her to check it out.

The widow of a World War II veteran and mother of five, Nicholson reminisces in Strumsky's history about how residents turned their new community into a true neighborhood — one of the men set up a woodworking shop in a craft room and made her a footstool. Jaap van Opstal took up stained glass as a hobby and made a rocking horse that she bought for one of her daughters.

"The month before I signed the papers to move in, I turned 62 years old," she said. "Now I have a new couple [in the building], and they must be 62."

"It's carefree living," said Ron Rogers, 76. "I don't have to shovel snow, I don't have to cut the lawn, I don't have to worry is the furnace going to break down."


Rogers, a retired systems analyst for Baltimore City, befriended William Donald Schaefer when the former governor and Baltimore mayor moved into Charlestown in 2008, three years before he died. Rogers still has it in the back of his head to create some sort of memorial for Schaefer, even though he had moved there somewhat against his will after friends decided he was too frail to live independently.

Other seniors have embraced the kind of lifestyle offered by the likes of Charlestown, said Marty Roach, chief of continuing care for the Maryland Department of Aging.

It was fairly unusual in the market when it opened, because it offered a refundable entrance fee to live in a campus-like setting with on-site medical facilities, Roach said. Plus, it offered several levels of care, from independent to assisted living, on through to nursing care.

"It would be a place where people live, and live out their lives," said Roach, whose department licenses and audits continuing-care facilities.

More common, she said, was the kind of housing where residents prepaid for long-term care — which in some cases they never needed.

The size of Charlestown also set it apart, with most other continuing-care communities having several hundred residents rather than more than 2,000. That allowed an economy of scale.

"John Erickson's vision was the middle-aged schoolteacher could afford to go there," Roach said. "The schoolteacher who had a good pension plan, that is, and a house that was paid for."

Currently, according to Charlestown, residents pay a deposit of about $90,000 to $600,000 to move into the campus, refundable after they move out or die, and monthly fees that range from $1,200 to $3,400.

Roach said her department's audits show Charlestown is in good financial shape, and even during its bankruptcy and reorganization, residents barely noticed a difference.

The financial woes were the result of "a perfect storm" of cascading market problems, said Kevin Heffner, who directs professional education at UMBC's Erickson School for Management of Aging Services — which was founded with a $5 million donation by Erickson that was matched by the state.

Heffner said Erickson was in the midst of an aggressive expansion when the housing market crashed. That prompted its largest potential market — retirees who normally might sell their houses to raise cash for the entrance fee to a retirement community — to instead stay put. As customer demand fell, banks grew wary and credit markets collapsed.

Now the company faces a changing marketplace, Heffner said, as the nation's baby boomers approach a time when they will need senior housing but likely will have different tastes than their parents — and perhaps less secure bank accounts.

"They will have high expectations, they'll want more diversified activities," Heffner said. "They'll have higher expectations but a lower ability to pay for them."


Heffner said the trend of longer life expectancies means seniors generally will stay in their own homes for longer, and only enter a retirement community — if they do so at all — when older and perhaps frailer.

He said Charlestown should be able to adapt to a changing population because it offers a range of options in housing and meal plans, activities and other amenities. But it may have to change its model, he said, of a big entrance fee that is 100 percent refundable when the resident leaves or dies to one that has a lower upfront cost that may be less than fully returned.

For Thursday's celebration, members of the community and corporate officials celebrated both Charlestown's past and looked forward to its future.

Del. Steven J. DeBoy read proclamations from the governor and General Assembly, and noted his own ties to Charlestown: His mother-in-law lives there and his now-grown children worked in the dining room as teenagers.

Growing up in nearby Arbutus, DeBoy remembered when the site was the St. Charles Seminary, and seeing priests playing baseball in the field. He reminisced about how, after the seminary closed, the Baltimore Colts practiced on the grounds.

Remaining from the site's seminary days is Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, with a soaring 80-foot dome and beautiful stained glass and statuary. Coincidentally, it too is celebrating a milestone this year, Erickson noted on Thursday: ground was broken for the chapel 100 years ago.

Which makes Charlestown at 30 seem downright youthful.

"I hope I can make the 50th [anniversary]," Erickson told the crowd. "What do you think?"


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