Congregate housing. It offers independent living at an affordable price - and is rapidly becoming a popular choice for senior citizens

IT'S called ``congregate living.'' As a life style for seniors who no longer want the responsibility of maintaining their own homes, it is an important segment of the strong and growing retirement housing market. Usually it involves small apartment units in a hotel or well-organized cluster community. A ``package'' arrangement includes extra services and amenities such as housekeeping assistance, the provision for two or more meals a day, transportation to local malls, churches, and personal appointments, and a planned program of activities.

The use of a library, arts and crafts studios, beauty and barber shops, and indoor and outdoor gardens is often included as well. Some congregate developments offer a 24-hour-a-day snack buffet.

Bill Wright heads the Camelot Corporation, which has congregate living facilities next to the Sun City retirement community, as well as two others in Colorado.

Along with a number of other builders and developers in the private sector, he has been quietly pioneering this concept of ``supportive'' congregate housing.

Mr. Wright points out that 28 million seniors are now making choices about where they spend their retirement years. In the next four decades, he says, 50 million more seniors will make such choices from the many options now available.

Interviewed as we toured the Camelot complex, Wright said seniors often choose a congregate facility when they want to preserve both dignity and privacy, as well as a sense of safety and independence.

``We think of ourselves as a place for people who need people,'' he says, ``who appreciate the opportunity to socialize and make new friends, and who enjoy being served appetizing and nicely served meals.'' Camelot residents receive two meals a day served in a communal dining room and have access to a breakfast bar and an all-day snack buffet. Their apartments are cleaned once a week.

Wright says that when he entered the congregate housing field a decade ago he had few guidelines to help him.

Along the way, he has found that ``good management and good food - oh, how important!'' have been his keys to success. As for management, he says a caring attitude on the part of employees, and a willingness to listen to and give attention to the problems of older residents, are vital.

Wright has focused on small rental units that are 550 to 750 square feet in size.

``The market segment that I have studied does not want to be locked into either health care or living arrangements. They want the flexibility to move out if they want to, and to pay for health care only if, and as, it is needed.

``The people I attract remember the Great Depression and the war years. They want to be comfortable and feel some sense of security, but they don't want to spend every dime they have to get it. They prefer to preserve their assets for their families, and to rent rather than buy into projects.

``So my idea,'' says this developer, ``is to keep rental congregate housing simple, affordable, and available to middle Americans.'' For one person, his complete package fee is $930 a month, and $250 a month extra for a second occupant of the apartment. Renters pay a $300 fee to move in and sign a year's lease, which has a 30-day cancellation clause in case they want to move out.

Too many developers of senior housing ``overbuild and overdo,'' says Wright, whereas those who can provide a modest package for less than $1,000 a month could, he estimates, capture 3 to 4 percent of the over-65 market. Along with many other developers, he foresees an increasing demand for rental units and for ``a la carte,'' or pay-as-you-go, services. Older people, these developers are finding, do not want to spend money on things they may not use.

Wright has now developed in Sun City what he terms a ``campus of care,'' which includes facilities for congregate living for well people, assisted or catered care for those who need additional help, and several additional levels up to and including intermediate and skilled nursing care.

Jumping to the East Coast, last year developer Charlie Sparks opened a 14-story high-rise rental congregate in North Miami Beach. It provides meals, housekeeping, an activity program, home health care, and a wellness program.

His built-in support system, he says, ``offers light supervision, if needed, in a lightly orchestrated environment.'' His package charge is $1,350 a month for a single person and $350 in addition for a spouse.

Mr. Sparks is now working on a low-rise congregate development on the west coast of Florida, where all services are designed to be used when and if wanted, including housekeeping and meals. ``You only pay for what you use,'' he explains, ``with no service or lots of service, as the tenant wants them.

``This system is particularly for `younger-olds.' It also takes care of those people who are reluctant to pay for what they don't want or use. And it leaves open the optimum number of options. Older people want nothing to take away their options, and they want to avoid regimentation and even the semblance of an institutional atmosphere.

``Many people,'' Sparks continues, ``still do not understand the congregate life style. But 15 years from now, it will be understood as a natural, positive alternative to living alone or trying to keep up a home.''

In Los Angeles, architect Samuel Wacht, who has planned thousands of housing units for the elderly, says that some California and Southwest developers have been offering rental congregates for more than 20 years. These include residential retirement hotels and entire retirement villages.

``Longer life spans and changing life styles have made housing for the elderly a critical priority today,'' he says. ``They don't just need a well-designed place to live, but services and amenities that don't cost a lot of money.''

The market rate for rental congregate units, as Mr. Wacht sees it, ranges somewhere between $900 and $1,500 a month for singles, depending on type and size of accommodation, location, value of the land, and other costs.

The average cost, he has found, might be close to $1,100 to $1,200 a month for housing, three meals a day, daily housekeeping, weekly change of linens, planned activities, programs, and transportation.

``I see a high casualty rate for projects that have not learned the importance of good design, management, and marketing,'' he says. ``But over the future there will always be a need for rentals and for `unbundled' services that you pay for when and if you use them. New and innovative insurance plans are coming along now that will enable people to hedge themselves against the cost of nursing home care.''

John Zeisel, president of Building Diagnostics, a full-service research and consulting firm in Boston, says congregate housing is not a new option. It dates back to old-fashioned rooming houses, boardinghouses, and residential hotels. He has seen the field changing in the last few years, as builders and developers study their local and regional markets and tailor their congregate housing to meet the specific economic and social needs of the older inhabitants of the area, as well as satisfy their taste requirements.

``Many people would like to live within 10 miles of where they have been living,'' says Mr. Zeisel, ``so they can continue with their network of friends, relatives, stores, etc.''

He says that developers who pigeonhole aging as a one-way street find themselves in trouble.

``Congregate housing in its broadest sense is not a one-way street,'' he contends. ``It is a two-way street. Many people in the congregate housing we have studied come from nursing homes. Many go back into independent living. It is a very dynamic and changing situation.''

He sees congregate housing, as it is developing today, as a very diverse and broad-ranging concept, which is still in its infancy.

``We will see more of it, as there is now a shift away from large entrance fees, which are barriers to many, to straight rentals and fully refundable entrance fees.''

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