Need is clear, but is Island retirement community feasible?
A professional market study will try to answer the question
The Vineyard can be a wonderful place to grow older, especially in the early retirement years. But as many Islanders age, maintaining their properties grows more difficult, health issues emerge, and they begin to cast about for a place to live that provides more in the way of services. This search leads many to abandon their Vineyard ties and take up residence in mainland retirement communities.
Polly Brown wants to find out if something can be done about that.
Ms. Brown, a resident of Vineyard Haven all her life, is active as a volunteer and board member of Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, and serves also as a trustee of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. She's been thinking about the possibility of establishing a retirement home on the Island for a couple of years.
Polly Brown of Vineyard Haven wants to know if a retirement community would keep longtime Islanders on-Island. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Today, Ms. Brown is mailing out a market study prepared by a professional consulting firm, New Life Management, Inc., in an effort to discover whether the Island community shares her sense that a retirement facility is needed here. The survey, she said in an interview this week, will be followed up by a series of focus group discussions across the Island on May 17 and 18.
"Too many people are leaving," Ms. Brown said. "They're going away because they can't get the services they need. Their family connections are here, and they have a long history here, and they love the community. But if they can no longer maintain a house, they can't stay. That's a terrible loss to the Island."
In a cover letter that is going out with the survey today, Ms. Brown explains that the purpose of the market study, and of the focus groups, is to determine whether other Island residents see a need, and if so, what a Vineyard retirement community might look like. "I envision independent apartments," she writes, "and perhaps cottages, and a main building with apartments and some social amenities, including a dining room, maybe a library and a meeting room or media room. We could also have some assisted living apartments, and could incorporate Windemere into the model - or could supplement Windemere's skilled nursing function in our facility."
She continues her letter with questions: "What would be attractive enough for you to consider moving in? Even if you don't personally choose to use the retirement home, having such a facility on the Island will enhance the quality of life for all of our community on-Island. What would keep people from moving off-Island to a retirement home?"
The sort of retirement facility Ms. Brown envisions would fill a gap in the landscape of options now available to elderly Island residents looking to change their living situation without leaving the community.
Island Elderly Housing (IEH) manages 150 federally subsidized apartment units for older residents of limited financial means. The privately run Havenside complex in Tisbury has 27 rental units for elders who are able to live independently, with monthly rents in the $800 range. Both IEH and the management of Havenside report waiting lists of about five years for new residents. At the other end of the spectrum of options, in terms of both expense and level of services, are facilities that provide intensive nursing care, such as the Windemere center at the hospital and the Henrietta Brewer House in Vineyard Haven.
Among the scores of Islanders who have moved away in their late retirement are Jack and Jane Ware, who retired full-time to Tisbury in 1981, and moved to the Piper Shores retirement community near Portland, Me., in September of 2001. In a telephone conversation last week, Mr. Ware said that the burden of caring for their Hatch Road property was one consideration in their move. A second was proximity to family, and a third was the desire not to be a burden to children, finding a place that provided an easy transition to assisted living services if needed.
Piper Shores has about 300 residents, Mr. Ware said; it's part of a national, nonprofit network of retirement communities with its headquarters in Iowa. Right on its campus, Piper Shores has a health care center called The Holbrook, which offers full assisted living and nursing services.
Looking back on their decision to move north, Mr. Ware said the desire not to burden his family with health care issues was important to him. In 2004, he suffered an attack of pneumonia and an ensuing lung infection, and spent a month in residence at The Holbrook.
"That didn't cost us anything more," he said. And Jane was close by - there's a walkway that connects the campus buildings, so she didn't even have to venture into the Maine weather.
Piper Shores is an intensely service-oriented place, Mr. Ware said. "The staff here is excellent," he said, "beyond all our expectations, and I think it's equal to almost one-third the number of residents. So of course, that's a major cost."
In fact, said Mr. Ware, "I would think one of the main problems for a facility like this on the Vineyard would be finding the staff."
Ms. Brown agrees. "I think that if we can find a big enough piece of property here," she said, "we ought to think about having employee housing on it."
Jack and Jane Ware own their apartment, and its value will revert someday to their estate. But the cost of living at Piper Shores is at the high end of the range for retirement communities, because of the depth and range of its services - Mr. Ware said that they pay nearly $45,000 a year as a couple to live there. "But 30 percent of our monthly service fee actually counts as a medical deduction, because in effect it's long-term care. Because of this, I've never had to pay a Maine income tax."
Looking to the Vineyard's situation, Mr. Ware said, "I think it would be very difficult to combine the assisted living aspect in a retirement center there - in fact, it's becoming a problem here. There are more people needing the service now than there were five years ago when Piper Shores first opened." Piper Shores has a current waiting list of about 70, he said, and the community is not accepting new residents who will need assisted living services from the very start.
Ms. Brown said the cost of residence at a Vineyard retirement community will be determined partially by the level of services, and that many choices will be involved. "One of the reasons we're holding these focus groups," she said, "is to learn what sorts of services people want, and what they're able to pay for."
She hopes that the responses to the survey and the discussion groups will help to focus a sense of whether a nonprofit community-based retirement facility is feasible on the Island, and what form it should take:
"I hope we'll know by the end of May whether to pursue this."