Determined to stay out of nursing homes and maintain active lives, a handful of retirees at Heritage Harbour created a preventive health care program three years ago that has become a model for others in the nation.
"Our mission is to keep the residents of Heritage Harbour in their homes for as long as possible," said Maeve S. Ostrowski, a registered nurse who serves as executive director of the Heritage Harbour Health Group.
The nonprofit adult community just west of Annapolis, with its two paid staff members, is believed by health care professionals to be the only organization of its kind.
The health group has attracted attention from similar adult communities in Michigan and North Carolina, which have sent representatives to study the program.
The group is not a health maintenance organization and does not compete with its members' private physicians. Rather, the group works with Heritage Harbour residents and their private physicians to help keep them healthy.
To do that, the health group provides a range of basic medical services, from checkups to blood pressure tests. It can arrange for in-home care givers and can train residents to take care of themselves, as well as provide grief and loss counseling when a loved one dies. And for residents who are new to the area and don't have a physician, Mrs. Ostrowski can make referrals.
Staff members also help with insurance forms and questions, and can arrange for modifications to homes, such as installing hand rails.
Having the health group nearby is "a very valuable asset to the members in Heritage Harbour," said Daniel S. Morrell, 80, a widower who moved to the community from Florida last year after his wife died.
Mr. Morrell recalled a day when he was having difficulty breathing. He drove to the group's office a few blocks away, where Mrs. Ostrowski took his pulse, which was low, then
arranged to have nearby doctors see him immediately. The doctors found a heart blockage and installed a pacemaker the next day.
The health group's office is open eight hours each weekday, but members can call 24 hours a day for help.
When the group started in 1990, it had 100 members. Now, it has 900 members among the community's 2,000 residents. And the number continues to grow. A fall membership drive began last week at a health fair in the community center.
The health care plan was started three years ago when a group of residents made 10-year, interest-free loans totaling $57,000 to start the health group.
A single membership in the group is $75 a year. A family membership is $135. The membership fees cover the services members receive. The money also goes toward the upkeep of the health group office and the salaries of Mrs. Ostrowski and office manager Totsie Beidleman, a Medicare specialist.
The group is overseen by a volunteer five-member board of directors, composed of health group members from the community.
The program helps cut health costs by helping seniors spot potential, costly ailments early, said Earl Greer, a retired Navy captain who is president of the health group and chairman of the board of directors. "We're pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and helping ourselves," said Mr. Greer, a five-year resident of Heritage Harbour.
Much of the program's success hinges on neighbors helping neighbors by doing such things as driving someone to a doctor's appointment or checking on each other.
The average age of Heritage Harbour residents is 70 1/2 . The residents are ordinary homeowners except that the community's charter requires that at least one spouse, in the case of couples, be 55 or older.
"This is a model of what volunteers can do and it could be used in any aging community," said Barbara Hoagwood, a retired social worker who sits on the board of directors and has lived at Heritage Harbour for three years.