People on the Move – Annapolis Capital Article on Assisted Living

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Millersville facility wants to set standard for assisted living; competition abounds
By GRANT HUANG, Staff Writer
When Craig Lussi decided to spend $6 million of his own money to build an assisted-living home in Millersville, he wanted to operate the best mid-sized facility in town.
The result is Assisted Living Well Compassionate Care, a 32-room facility divided into two 8,500-square-foot bungalow-style houses located off East-West Boulevard. The staff of 30 full- and part-time caretakers include a gourmet chef and a live-in physician, both rare amenities for a smaller facility like Assisted Living Well.
Still, the facility hasn’t exactly soared – it opened in December and is currently at half capacity with 16 residents. But Mr. Lussi, 45, shows no sign of discouragement.

“We’re going to push the market,” said Mr. Lussi, a real-estate broker who has a home in Pasadena and plans to retire there. “We’re going to provide such great care and great food that we’re going to make the market get better.”

But getting to that lofty goal won’t be easy in a county with a rapidly growing senior population. According to 2005 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the county was home to about 52,400 people aged 65 or older, an increase of more than 3,500 since the 2000 census.

Residents stay an average of two years at assisted-living homes before either dying or moving to a more intensive-care facility, said Kelly Mason, president of Morningside House, one of the region’s larger assisted-living franchises. But even with the short stays, she and others in the assisted-living business anticipate demand for more facilities.

“The demand is going to grow because so many baby boomers are living to get older,” said Dolores Novin, whose family has owned and operated Locust Lodge Assisted Living in Pasadena for more than 25 years.

Her facility is one of more than a dozen small-to-medium ones just in north county, though its longevity has given it a dedicated customer base – a major advantage over newer facilities like Assisted Living Well.

“A lot of your business is word-of-mouth,” Mrs. Novin said. “We don’t sell to the seniors; we sell to their families.”

One son or daughter can generate a half-dozen referrals, ensuring a constant stream of residents at the 20-room facility off Fort Smallwood Road.

Brand names also matter.

At Morningside House of Friendship in Hanover, more than 90 of the 103 beds are filled, Mrs. Mason said.

Morningside has five other locations in Laurel, Ellicott City, Parkville and Waldorf in Maryland, as well as one in Leesburg, Va., but bigger isn’t always better, Mrs. Mason said.

“Not every community is going to be right for every family,” she said. “Smaller homes mean less staff and more cross-trained staffers, but it’s more of a family atmosphere. Some seniors might feel lost in a bigger place.”

She was quick to point out the matching benefits of a large facility like her company’s Hanover location, which has been in business for 11 years.

“More beds generate more income and more staff,” she said. “We have separate directors for every department, from activities to housekeeping and other programs.”

Prices at Morningside range from about $2,100 a month to more than $5,000 a month, depending on the type of room and level of care needed.

Meanwhile, the medium-sized Assisted Living Well facility tries to have the best of both worlds, with a large staff but small, neat buildings sitting in a quiet, wooded neighborhood. Prices begin at $4,350 a month.

Mr. Lussi decided to place his facility on roughly five acres of land behind an equestrian center frequented by children receiving lessons on horseback.

“It’s an oasis in this neighborhood,” he said. “The idea is real care, not warehousing people. I didn’t want it to be a place where people came by to deposit older family members.”

On the other hand, Locust Lodge is deliberately devoid of any obvious glitz. Fees at Locust Lodge are flat, ranging from $2,700 to $3,500 per month, based on the size of a resident’s room and on amenities.

“I think by being homey, the atmosphere is better for residents coming in,” Mrs. Novin said.

Because many of her residents have lived much of their lives in modest Baltimore rowhouses, they tend to be uncomfortable with the more opulent facilities offered by large assisted-living franchises.

“You shouldn’t be serving TV dinners or cooking out of cans,” she said. “But a lot of my residents say they just want plain food.”

When shopping for an assisted-living facility, the residents’ families have even more basic priorities, according to Carl Lenzenweger, who works for Community Home Health of Maryland, a nonprofit agency funded by Medicare.

“Families want to know that mom and dad will be safe,” said Mr. Lenzenweger, a physical therapist who routinely visits assisted-living facilities in the county to provide therapy to residents. “That they’ll receive their medications on time, that they’ll receive adequate nutrition, and that mom and dad will be able to socialize.”

He encouraged families to shop around and ask tough questions.

“Look at the quality of care. Look at the staffing, to see if there’s enough to take care of the number of residents they have,” he said. “Some of these (seniors) have left very nice homes, left behind very nice furniture,” he said. “You don’t want them to go into a place, look at their family and say, ‘You did this to me.’ “

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