A decade ago there weren't many options for people such as George M. Wentz, an 86-year-old military veteran who was active but couldn't live on his own.
So, when his second wife died, he reluctantly checked himself into a nursing home.
"The more I visited him, the more I saw he was deteriorating," said George R. Wentz, his grandson. "I was thinking there's got to be more for Grandfather."
But there wasn't. So the younger Mr. Wentz left his job with the Reagan administration in 1986 and turned a Linthicum house into a state-certified group home where seniors could live and have meals and activities provided.
Two years ago, Mr. Wentz converted a house in Annapolis, and next month he will open a home in Crofton on Davidsonville Road, the first to be built from scratch. By year's end, Mr. Wentz plans to open three more assisted-living homes, in Annapolis, Severna Park and Bel Air. His partnership with Constellation Health Services, a subsidiary of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is helping to finance the $3.5 million project.
Grandfather Wentz stayed in the group home in Linthicum until he died in 1993.
"He loved it," said George R. Wentz, 37, president of Colonial Manor Homes, the Baltimore-based company he started to help seniors who want to live independently but need assistance. "He started to see that this whole idea was growing. . . . He took a lot of pride that this all started because of him."
Each of Mr. Wentz's homes has three nursing assistants who cook, clean, dress or dispense medications for about 15 seniors.
Comprehensive health care is not provided, but a registered tTC nurse from the University of Maryland home health care program makes regular visits.
Residents typically are 75 or older and can live on their own with some assistance. The homes are nearly always occupied, and the cost is about $2,500 a month, Mr. Wentz said.
His philosophy is to make the group house look like a home and feel like a family.
The Crofton home is a one-story, Colonial manor-style house with white vinyl siding and a slate-colored shingle roof. The home blends into the neighborhood of single-family houses.
The differences lie in the design. The group home has a hallway as wide as a hospital corridor. It also will have three recreation rooms; two dining rooms; a kitchen; 15 bedrooms, each with a private bathroom; and a wellness room, complete with a whirlpool. There also will be a front porch with 10 white wicker rocking chairs and a vegetable garden in the back.
"We've come a long way since I opened up my first one in 1986," Mr. Wentz said. "At that time, you really had only three options: If you couldn't live in your home, you could move into a nursing home or move in with your family."
Homes such as Mr. Wentz's are filling a gap in the Anne Arundel County senior housing market.
"In recent years [a group home] has become more popular as community-based care has become more emphasized," said Michael F. Banscher, assisted housing program director for the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging. "There is a real rising curve in that industry. Mr. Wentz is banking on that curve."
Anne Arundel County is home to about 79,000 people over age 55, the fastest-growing segment of the county's population, according to county statistics. By 2000, that figure is expected to jump to 111,000.
About 20 percent of the county's seniors do not live in their own homes. About 200 live in 25 group homes, county figures show.
State law allows the homes to have as few as four residents and as many as 15. The homes are monitored by the county Department of Aging and certified by the state.
Mr. Wentz, who grew up in Severna Park and once practiced admiralty law in New Orleans, said he hopes to open other homes in Baltimore and Charles counties.
"The whole idea is to keep people involved, active, not just existing," he said.