Howard weighs ideas that let seniors age in home of choice


Not everyone who is retired or nearing it is in the market for one of the luxury units that are dominating the landscape. A report says that 70 percent of Howard County's aging adults wish to remain in their homes, or nearby.

"The need to preserve and create housing for the county's older adults is becoming more profound," says a report by a county-appointed task force on senior housing. "High land prices, as well as the older adults' declining mobility, health and resources have made it more difficult for many seniors to find housing that meets their various needs."

Faced with these findings, officials are responding to the graying of the county with a variety of measures, ranging from building moderately priced apartments for seniors to pushing for universal design in all new homes to considering providing assisted care.

Behind it all is the philosophy of aging in place, says Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the Howard County Office on Aging.

"What the concept says is that older people ought to be able to age in the home or the community of their choice," she says. "It doesn't mean stay in your own home until your final days come, but it does mean that people should have a wide variety of choices in terms of housing."

To that end, the county has embarked on an aggressive series of proposals. Among the most important are:

Modifying existing homes to make them more functional and safe for low-income seniors. The program, begun in 2001, helps finance repairs and alterations to homes, such as adding double handrails to stairways and widening doorways.

Encouraging - and in some instances requiring - developers of senior housing to use universal design methods. Among such features typically are wider doorways and halls, no-step entrances, safety grip bars in bathrooms and the capability of living on the first floor.

Universal design features, Madachy says, don't "mark a home for frail people. Homes should be built with features that are functional. They are not geared toward older adults; they are not geared for people with disabilities. They work for a lot of people. They work not just for the current resident, but for friends and family members as well as future homebuyers."

Providing modest but affordable apartments through a partnership of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development and private developers. The units usually are between 600 and 650 square feet. The projects include Park View in Columbia and Colonial Landing in Elkridge. In both cases, the upper end in rent is about $600.

Another county-assisted apartment complex, Waverly Gardens in Woodstock, is under construction. Rents will range from $685 to $850 a month.

An extension of that effort will be the county's first foray into providing assisted-living services.

The county is building an apartment complex in Ellicott City that will include nine efficiencies with modules that can be pulled out to accommodate two or three hospital beds - transforming them from independent-living units to assisted care.

"What do we do with a senior when he's 72 years old and 15 years from now he starts to deteriorate?" says Leonard S. Vaughan, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development. " ... I can't just put him out on the street."

Proposed rezoning to permit multi-unit senior housing in mature residential neighborhoods. The design would be different to make the developments palatable to those already living in the area.

"We call it McMansion," says Vaughan. "From the street, it looks like a minimansion, but inside it's multiple units."

The county will continue wrestling with how to provide affordable housing and services to seniors.

And the next General Plan, which will be adopted in five years, certainly will deal with the issue, says Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning

"It will be a significant discussion point in 2010," he says. "We will have had enough history with senior housing by then" to know what efforts are working or need revisions.

Lafferty says, though, that the costs of senior housing will remain a critical problem and it is unclear whether a solution is at hand.

"We're not going to see an appreciable drop in pricing," he says. "Some people still want large floor plans with a lot of amenities, and that's their right. But it will further inhibit the market's ability to shift and meet the needs" of those who are unable to afford units that begin in the $400,000s and shoot upward.

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