Capitalizing on Howard's booming elderly population, the largest assisted-living residence in the county opened this week in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village.
The $8 million facility is run by Sunrise Assisted Living Inc., which has communities in 11 states, including many in the Baltimore-Washington-Virginia area and two being built in Rockville and Severna Park.
Although its record has been marred by allegations of improper care at facilities in Maryland and Virginia, the Fairfax, Va., company insists it has corrected any problems and touts its homey facilities for protecting residents' dignity and autonomy.
Considering the company's mixed record and the need for senior housing in Howard -- which has the fastest growing elderly population in the state -- the new home's success will be watched.
The building on Freetown Road can accommodate 96 seniors who don't need round-the-clock care offered by nursing homes but do need some help getting around. Unlike nursing homes, no doctors are on staff, and there is only one registered nurse.
Half the rooms were reserved with deposits when the residence opened Monday.
"Our older population is exploding, so we're pleased this new facility has opened," said Charles Greenslit, chairman of the Howard County Commission on Aging.
The state Office of Planning says the county has about 20,500 residents 60 and older, about 10 percent of the county's population. That number is expected to increase by 70 percent in the next decade.
Howard has a range of other housing for seniors that includes 47 small group homes, two retirement communities, a continuing care facility that offers as-needed nursing, two nursing homes and seven rent-subsidized apartment complexes, said Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the county Office on Aging.
"The facilities tend to be concentrated in highly populated areas like Ellicott City and Columbia," Madachy said. "A lot of adult children bring their elderly parents to Howard so they will be close by."
Housing for the elderly continues to increase in the county, with plans for 85 units in Ellicott City and Columbia on the drawing board, though some projects have faced neighborhood opposition.
Residents have filed an appeal in Circuit Court to a zoning exception for a 89-unit complex proposed by Orchard Development Corp. for Hickory Ridge. And merchants are fighting a planned low-income Tiber-Hudson apartment complex for the elderly in Ellicott City, saying it will detract from the city's historic character.
The new Sunrise facility did not garner protests, despite the 15-year-old company's problems at some of its 35 homes nationwide.
Regulators from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found "voluminous" lapses in care for residents at a Sunrise home in Kensington in 1994, including one case in which a resident died after being given medication no longer needed.
The company was cleared of blame, but it no longer runs the Montgomery County home.
"We've been keeping a close eye on Sunrise, and they've cleaned up their act," said Brian Flanagan, a spokesman for the department.
In Virginia, Sunrise was cited last year for failing to provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation to a resident of a home in Arlington. Authorities also investigated the death of a man who forced open a third-story window and fell out of a home in Falls Church.
In response, the company increased staff training, improved its emergency procedures and put wooden stops on the windows. But the Virginia Department of Social Services continued to receive complaints, mostly about improper medication at several of Sunrise's nine homes in Virginia.
After a meeting with Virginia officials and the assistant attorney general in August, the company wrote a 14-page report detailing improvements in its care.
"It seemed an appropriate response, and that's why we went ahead and renewed their licenses," said Sharon Schoumacher, regional administrator for the Virginia DSS' state licensing division. "We're trying to monitor the company closely, but we've been very short on staff."
In another Virginia case, Fairfax County sued Sunrise last year, citing violations of fire and building codes designed to protect people who can't walk without assistance.
The lawsuit was dropped after Sunrise spent $1.5 million to upgrade homes in Sterling and Lorton, said Kathleen Dezio, senior vice president for corporate communications at Sunrise.
Although new senior centers are constructed with more safety features in mind, she said some conflicts arise because regulators still are adjusting to the relatively new concept of assisted living.
"If you impose too many regulatory burdens, you deny assisted-living residents choices," Dezio said. "We're more cost-effective and have a different perspective than nursing care in that we want to promote residents' independence and protect their privacy."
The Sunrise home in Columbia looks far more like a fancy bed-and-breakfast than an institution for the elderly. Christmas wreaths and lights adorn the exterior, which resembles a Victorian-style inn. The interior decor features plush carpets, Norman Rockwell paintings, dark wood furniture and flowers.
Residents are encouraged to socialize in common areas such as the dining room or library, invite friends or family to visit, and take walks along landscaped paths.
The facility's 50 employees prepare three meals a day, organize recreational activities and shopping trips, and do laundry and housekeeping. They also help some people get dressed and bathe in private rooms.
The facility has a 32-resident unit that caters to the needs of those with Alzheimer's disease.
Living at the center costs an average of $30,300 a year, but public officials said the cost is in line with other facilities in Howard.
"I think we're going to make an impact on this county by helping change the way people age," said Cynthia Herringa, a regional vice president at Sunrise who oversees its six complexes in Maryland. "We want our residents to be as independent as possible and feel like this is their home."
Pub Date: 12/18/96