As reported by The Hartford Courant, July 16, 2007.

A Place for the Elderly, But Big

Scale Would Lower Prices of Farmington Units

By Jessica Marsden

From the road, all that is visible of the Linden Ponds development in Hingham, Mass., is the gatehouse.

Just past the entrance, the scale of the project becomes clear. There are two clusters of buildings, each several stories tall. A vast construction site at the end of the main road serves as a reminder that this is only the halfway point for the project, slated to be completed gradually over the next several years.

When it is complete, Linden Ponds will be home to more than 2,000 retirees, some active, some elderly. They will move into apartments, but the development will offer assisted living and nursing to residents who can no longer live independently. Along with the promise of "aging in place," still-active residents will be able to take advantage of a multitude of on-site recreational activities as well as off-campus trips.

Linden Ponds, south of Boston, and the 18 other developments operated by Erickson Retirement Communities are among the largest such entities in the country. In fall 2008, Erickson hopes to start construction on a similar complex in Farmington.

The company, based in Maryland, has pioneered a financial structure that aims to make "continuing care" available to middle-income Americans, with an entrance fee that is fully returnable and relatively low monthly fees. To make such a structure work, its communities are significantly larger than most.

If it succeeds in its bid to move into Farmington, the company will change the face of retirement living in Connecticut. Erickson would not be the state's first continuing care retirement community - there are more than a dozen across the state - but would almost certainly be the largest, by far. And its lower fees would make its many amenities more affordable to Connecticut residents, many of whom see such communities as desirable, if pricey, options for retirement.

"By having it this size, you don't have to be rich to live here," said Mark Hunter, development director for Erickson.

Unprecedented Size

Among Erickson's selling points to skeptical towns such as Farmington is that it would boost the tax rolls without adding much to the cost of services in surrounding communities, chiefly because it does not directly add to school enrollment. But the sheer size of the facilities may crank up local costs because of a domino effect: Older residents leave their homes in town to move into an Erickson facility, and young families with children replace them.

These issues are sure to come up in Farmington, where opponents of the company's plans for the Krell Farm have already made their voices heard at local planning meetings.

Industry experts could name no facility in Connecticut larger than the one proposed by Erickson - or even close. Among about a dozen communities in the state that are members of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, none has more than a total of 500 units, said Steve Maag, director of assisted living and continuing care for the organization.

In addition to its 1,500 apartment-style units, Erickson plans to build a 300-bed assisted living and nursing care facility in Farmington.

"I would be surprised if there is anybody that's anywhere close to that in Connecticut," Maag said.

Heritage Village, an active-adult community in Southbury, has 2,580 condominium units, but provides "totally independent living," according to sales administrator Joyce Upson. While the community has recreation facilities and 24-hour security, it does not operate restaurants, stores or a full schedule of activities for residents, and those who need nursing care must either arrange for in-home care or leave the community, she said.

The average age for residents is in the low 70s, Upson said, compared to the late 70s or early 80s at Erickson facilities.

The unprecedented size of the proposed Erickson community is troubling to some in Farmington. The first meeting to consider the zoning changes needed for the site drew a large crowd on June 25, and residents have expressed concerns about the influx of population, traffic and added demand for town services.

Erickson, in its local presentations, has said it will not burden the town, not only because of the lack of children but also because it would provide a one-stop shop for recreational activities as well as care. Residents would have little demand for local services for the elderly, company representatives argue.

But Hingham's experience paints a more complicated picture. A majority of Linden Ponds residents moved to the community from houses in Hingham, which led to rapid turnover in the neighborhoods. There was already growth in the number of schoolchildren, but Town Administrator Charles Cristello said it has accelerated somewhat since Linden Ponds opened.

Emergency services have also seen additional demand since Linden Ponds opened. Fire chief Mark Duff said his department makes one or two visits to the community each week for emergency medical calls. The new tax revenue has allowed the department to add another ambulance, but Linden Ponds is in a dead zone for the department's radio communications, Duff said. An upgrade is needed, and the town is currently negotiating with Erickson over funding for the project, he said.

"It's a work in progress," Duff said.

Village In A Town

The Farmington community would employ more than 1,000 people when it is completed, and would add construction jobs for the estimated seven years of "build-out." Though residents would be able to take care of most of their basic needs on-site, local stores and restaurants would get a boost from the influx of new residents, said Scott Hayward, an Erickson regional vice president based in Massachusetts.

Erickson is banking on the idea that its offerings will appeal to some of the 225,000 elderly residents living within a 25-mile radius of the town.

For Ben Pettersson, one of the first residents of Linden Ponds, a primary attraction of the community was its location in Hingham, where he has lived since 1959. When the facility opened in 2004, Pettersson was active and healthy enough to maintain his home, though he was tiring of the maintenance work involved.

Pettersson, 74, now occupies a one-bedroom apartment in Linden Ponds, which has allowed him to stay involved in his activities in the town. He teaches computer classes for Hingham seniors, and also introduces new Linden Ponds residents to the area with a tour of restaurants, stores and churches. Staying in Hingham has kept him close to his two daughters and his grandchildren, who live in Hingham and Hanover, Mass.

"I've never regretted it," he said.

Erickson officials describe Linden Ponds as a close analogue of the proposed community in Farmington. The Hingham facility is about halfway completed, with 800 residents in place. Within its walls, the community offers residents the choice of four restaurants, a library, a convenience store, a fitness center and an all-weather swimming pool. A pharmacy will open later this year, and the medical staff will grow from two full-time doctors to five or six when the complex is completed, along with a number of part-time specialists.

The buildings are all linked by weatherproof walkways, so residents can reach any service without setting foot outdoors. The grounds themselves are intensively landscaped with walking trails for residents seeking fresh air.

A high-definition TV in one of the lounges made it possible to see July 4 fireworks "as though you were looking through a window," Pettersson said. Recently arrived Ruth Diezemann said residents at Linden Ponds can now play simulated golf on a new Nintendo Wii video game system, a gadget more likely to be marketed to their grandkids, but apparently popular with Erickson folks as well.

Middle Income?

Erickson markets its aim to make this level of services available to "middle America" with a financial structure somewhat different from that of many continuing-care retirement communities, company officials said.

Traditionally, many have required entrance deposits that are mostly or entirely non-returnable, and fixed monthly fees that spread the costs of assisted living to all residents whether they needed the additional care or not. Erickson, by contrast, returns the entrance deposit to residents or their heirs when they leave, years later, without interest.

The monthly charges are "fee-for-service," so the cost rises when a resident moves into assisted living, and many amenities come at an extra charge.

"Our goal is to meet the needs of the middle-income senior," said Rick Grindrod, Erickson's president for health and operations.

Nationwide, continuing-care community residents typically have household incomes of more than $75,000 a year, said John Krout, a professor of aging studies at Ithaca College in New York. The median annual income for an Erickson household is $42,147, the company reports. That figure is still significantly higher than the national median income for households headed by a person 65 or older, which is just over $26,000, according to the U.S. Census.

At Linden Ponds, the entrance deposit ranges from $156,000 to $449,500, depending on the size of the apartment. The monthly fees range from $1,327 to $2,304 while residents are in independent living. When the assisted living and nursing facility opens next year, it will probably charge between $3,500 and $8,000 a month, depending on the level of care required.

Erickson requires that its residents have at least $130,000 in assets above the entrance fee, as well as a monthly income that is at least 1.5 times the initial monthly fee. A resident who runs out of money can use part of the entrance deposit to cover costs. If that is fully depleted, Erickson maintains a "Benevolent Care Fund." The company said no one has ever been forced to leave an Erickson community because of lack of money.

Erickson's monthly fees tend to be at the middle or lower end of the spectrum, while its entrance fees are comparable to those of similarly structured facilities, said Maag, at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.

As a result, an Erickson facility in Farmington could help fill a gap documented in a new study on long-term care needs, done for the state, which showed that not everyone who would want to move into such a community could afford to.

"People just have expectations that they're not going to be able to achieve," said Julie Robison, a University of Connecticut professor and a lead researcher in the study.

But while Robison said Erickson's cost structure is "more flexible" than that of many communities, she questioned whether the income requirements were truly "middle income" for an elderly population, as Erickson advertises. Few Connecticut residents have more than $25,000 to spend annually on their care, she said.

For Pettersson, one of Erickson's attractions was the security of the returnable deposit. He will be able to pass on a legacy to his children, and receiving the cash deposit back will be simpler for his heirs than having to sell his house, he said.

But that day should be far in the future. Pettersson said he has only gotten healthier since moving in to Linden Ponds. He is on medication to manage his diabetes, but he credits a combination of herbs and stress-reducing tai chi for his high level of mobility and activity.

"I plan on being the oldest resident they have," he said.