Claudia Tracy, seventy-one, sits at a table in the middle of a spacious lobby with an oxygen tank and her dog, a Yorkie named Rusty, who jumps at her feet. Light is streaming through the windows. The walls are freshly painted in warm hues of teal and gray with plush carpet to match. Behind her are a grand piano and a bistro that serves such dishes as tandoori chicken, seafood cobbler, and creme brulee cheesecake. “What’s It All About, Alfie?” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” waft through the room.
Tracy moved to this sparkling new facility, StoryPoint, a week after it opened in January. She has COPD and found it difficult to take care of herself at her former home in Britton. “When the sign went up, I decided this was what I want to do,” she says. As an independent living resident, she has a roomy one-bedroom apartment with ten-foot ceilings and eats dinner each night in StoryPoint’s upscale dining room. A former travel agent, she’s relishing the social opportunities and participates in bingo and exercise classes. “I love having company. I missed being with people,” she says.
This is not your grandmother’s nursing home. StoryPoint, nestled behind a pond on State Rd. near Textile, is the latest example of a growth industry in Washtenaw’s small towns: senior housing facilities responding to a swelling population of older residents. According to a report from the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, the number of people ages sixty and older in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline is expected to grow by more than two-thirds between 2010 and 2040, to more than 6,300. And that’s not counting the townships. StoryPoint, for instance, has a Saline address but is part of Pittsfield Twp.
While the two biggest local elder care organizations are nonprofits with religious roots, StoryPoint is a business. “It’s a growing industry,” says Maribeth Bersani, COO of Argentum, the trade association representing senior living providers, and investors are seeing rural communities and small towns as a promising market. Because land is usually less expensive than in urban areas, “We are seeing more developers looking at this as a more affordable model in less populated areas, because there’s a huge need,” she says. Providers are finding that older residents appreciate the small-town atmosphere of Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter. Most of the residents have either lived their lives here or are moving from other places to be near their children.
StoryPoint provides 152 units for independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Less than a year after its opening, the assisted living and memory care units are filled, while independent living is 69 percent full. Irina Olgart, marketing team lead for StoryPoint, says the company prefers to build fifteen to twenty miles outside a metropolitan area. She says they’re glad to be part of Saline’s “holistic environment.” Brian Marl, Saline’s mayor, says the city “is a quaint, safe community, and that of course appeals to a diverse demographic, including seniors.”
If StoryPoint is the new kid on the block, the dominant player in the Saline area is still EHM Senior Solutions, formerly known as Evangelical Homes of Michigan. Though the 137-year-old nonprofit remains connected to the United Church of Christ, the rebranding removes any hints that it’s limited to church members, or residential services. EHM’s clients have long been religiously diverse, and its services now extend well beyond brick and mortar to include senior day care, home care, and transport.
Its three campuses, all within the city of Saline, include Brecon Village, with 146 independent, assisted living, and memory-care residences plus thirty-six cottage-style condos; Mill Pond Manor, an affordable apartment community for seniors; and the Redies Center for Rehabilitation & Healthy Living, providing skilled nursing and rehabilitation. EHM also recently purchased the former St. Joseph Mercy-Saline Hospital and is redeveloping the 100,000-square-foot space into the Community Center for Innovation and Education, a health and wellness site for seniors.
United Methodist Retirement Communities has eight campuses across Southeast Michigan–including the Cedars of Dexter and the Pines of Chelsea (assisted living) and Silver Maples of Chelsea (independent living, assisted living, and respite care). It’s expanding its flagship campus, Chelsea Retirement Community, which has 350 residents in all levels of care, with Prairie Cottages, an independent living facility due to open at the beginning of 2017. So far, fifteen of the forty-one units have been reserved. “That’s very encouraging. We’re ahead of where we expected to be,” says Stacey Olson, UMRC’s PR director.
Meryl Place, seventy-eight, will be moving there in May with her husband, leaving the house in Ann Arbor where they’ve lived for the past twenty-five years. “I can hardly wait,” she says, adding that they were on a wait-list for an out-of-state facility for three years. Chelsea “has always been a favorite place. It’s a small town with charming ambience with close proximity to excellent medical facilities,” she says. The chance to move into a brand new home managed by friendly staff and the highly regarded Chelsea Retirement Community meant “it didn’t take us any time to make up our mind that it was where we wanted to be.”
Christina Kim, director of marketing and sales at Silver Maples, says Chelsea has numerous resources that appeal to older people, including a thriving arts and wellness culture. A prime location, less than half an hour from Ann Arbor and an hour from Lansing and Detroit, is another attraction, she says. It’s also easy to navigate, especially for seniors who still drive, says Bob Pierce, executive director of the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce.
Linden Square Assisted Living Center in Saline is at work on an expansion that will add an additional fifty-two units. Owned by Heritage Senior Communities in Grand Haven, it currently has fifty-seven units, thirty-eight for general assisted living and nineteen for memory care. “We are seeing a growing need for this,” says Jill Fischer, an administrator for Linden Square. She says seniors used to wait until the last minute to move to a senior living community. Now they do it “proactively rather than reactively.”
Nevertheless, the cost may give even some eager seniors pause: the new facilities, and the services that go with them, are expensive. It costs $6,000 a month at Linden Square for a two-bedroom apartment in assisted living; that includes three meals a day, snacks, and weekly housekeeping and laundry. At StoryPoint, apartments start at $2,750 and go up to $4,075.
Prairie Cottages in Chelsea will charge an entry fee, which begins at $136,900, plus a monthly service fee, which starts at $2,695. Those rates include weekly housekeeping, activities, and a meal plan of $220 per month per person. Brecon Village charges a one-time community fee of $1,500, and independent living apartments start at $2,840 per month for an efficiency with two meals and fortnightly housekeeping. Assisted living starts at $4,600 for a basic unit with three meals and added services. A rich menu of social activities is included in the monthly fee.
Leroy Taylor, ninety-three, is in assisted living at Brecon Village. He says the rent is reasonable for the essential services he receives, such as a personal care assistant who helps him manage his daily regimen of pills. Since he has macular degeneration, his vision is significantly impaired, but a magnifying machine in the library allows him to “read anything,” he says. “I have lots of friends here. It’s very pleasant.”
The development and expansion of senior living has created a symbiotic relationship between the facilities and their towns. They’re viewed as a prime opportunity to strengthen the local economy. Rather than taxing the resources of the town, senior residents are adding to them. That’s been the case elsewhere. A September 2016 study of assisted living in Massachusetts showed that the industry generated nearly $5 billion there in 2015.
As a nonprofit, religious-based organization, “we like being in communities where we feel we can connect and make an important contribution,” says Paul Stavros, vice president of marketing and business development for EHM Senior Solutions. EHM sponsors yoga in the park in Saline, the public People’s Express bus service, and Christmas events. When it purchased the former St. Joe’s hospital in Saline, EHM set up multiple online and community forums to solicit input on what locals hoped to see in the space. Connecting with the town of Saline “is easier to do because it’s smaller,” Stavros says.
Rina Chemin, director of the Saline Area Senior Center, which has over 1,000 members, says StoryPoint in particular has been “very beneficial to us,” helping to pay for food, entertainment, and door prizes at center functions. Olgart of StoryPoint says she is always looking for opportunities to assist the local economy, for example, buying ingredients for resident meals from the local farmers’ market.
“I like to think we’re a giver, not a taker,” says Shawn Personke, director of wellness and public relations for Silver Maples. The facility has participated in a mini art fair, provides an adult learners institute, and partners with numerous organizations and programs in Chelsea.
EHM now employs 340 people in Saline, and Stavros says they’ll gain another eighty-five over the next year when the company closes its Ann Arbor offices and moves those employees into the former St. Joe’s site. As that campus is built out, they’ll continue to add staff. The employees, notes Mayor Marl, patronize shops and restaurants, fill up their cars with gas, and head to local grocery stores: “They drive economic activity, which is essential for a thriving, growing prosperous community.” John Olson, executive director of the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce, says the facilities often host the chamber’s monthly networking breakfasts. And senior residents are involved in the community, golfing, shopping, and dining at restaurants. “It’s a whole different active [senior] lifestyle compared to a generation ago,” he says.
Pierce says the United Methodist Retirement Community is already one of Chelsea’s largest employers, and “their $30-million expansion project will have a large impact on us.” Another economic benefit, he adds, comes from people who visit their loved ones in the retirement centers. Since they often stay overnight, they frequent the town’s lodging and restaurants.
Trinh Pifer, director of the Chelsea Senior Center, which has 850 members, says that the retirement community has actively supported the center and provides free daily shuttles from some of its facilities. UMRC also hosts arts and craft shows, numerous lecture series, and this year a public candidate forum run by the League of Women Voters.
Wendy Smith, director of the Dexter Senior Center, wishes there were more senior facilities in town: in the Dexter Community School District, the sixty-and-over population has increased 85 percent in just five years. “We’re growing so quickly. We’re struggling to keep operations going because of all the people we need to serve,” she says. She says many seniors in her area are on wait-lists for housing for years.
However, increased competition in this market could become an issue. Fischer of Linden Square admits that the opening of StoryPoint has had an impact. Her occupancy rate is at 90 percent, and she would like it to be 96 percent. Another factor is the potentially limited resources of future retirees as fewer people receive pensions and instead must rely on their own savings.
Bersani of Argentum says “care is more expensive in assisted living than in your own home. It’s not always the most financially sound option.” But administrators are optimistic that an aging boomer population will continue to demand their services. StoryPoint has broken ground in three other locations and is considering expanding the Saline facility in a decade if the existing units fill–which could potentially reduce costs to residents: “The more units we have, the more we can decrease the rent,” Olgart says.
David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association, says that senior living facilities can sometimes trigger a “not in my backyard” reaction, with concerns about ambulance use and draining a town’s resources. But he says “the reality is these are really great communities to add to towns. They employ people, and they’re needed. They ultimately fit in very nicely.”
UMRC’s Olson agrees and believes that with so many boomers aging in these towns there will be enough business “for all of us.”
This article has been edited since it was published in the Winter 2016 Community Observer. Some pricing information has been simplified.