Image: Ann Aleenbrand Eileen Jarrett
Ed Zurga  /  AP
Ann Allenbrand, left, and Eileen Jarrett talk in an area of The Sweet Life nursing home called the 'French Bistro.' The residence offers an enclosed village with amenities such as private suites, a movie theater, gourmet meals and an on-site rehabilitation center.
updated 3/18/2004 8:43:54 AM ET 2004-03-18T13:43:54

When Betty Roberts’ 30-year battle with lupus forced her out of her home, she went first to a hospital, then to a nursing and rehabilitation center.

In spring 2002, Roberts’ children persuaded her to move into The Sweet Life at Rosehill, a new nursing home in an enclosed village that offers such amenities as private suites, a movie theater, gourmet meals, a chapel and a beauty salon along with on-site rehabilitation and a licensed nursing staff.

Although Roberts, 77, said she still hopes to return to her Kansas City, Kan., home, she appreciates the atmosphere at The Sweet Life. “They’ve treated me very well. My friends and family like visiting. It’s a nice place to be if you have to be away from home,” she said.

Roberts is the beneficiary of a movement throughout the adult care industry away from sterile, hospital-like nursing homes to living arrangements that combine comfort, companionship and health care.

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Three major factors drive change
Experts in adult care say the movement is driven by three factors: an increasing population of elderly; more attention to residents’ rights in response to reports of nursing home abuses; and demands from baby boomers who want the best care for their parents.

“There used to be a perception that nursing homes were where people were ’put away,”’ said Robert Bornstein, a psychology professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who co-authored a book “When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living or In-Home Care.”

“We’ve moved away from that notion to helping them find a place where they can be happy and their families can be comfortable. The children are often part of the decision, but a majority of those going into assisted living now are going voluntarily.”

Jeff Cleveland, one of four owners of The Sweet Life, said such adult care centers are designed to make the residents and their families comfortable with one of life’s most difficult decisions.

“We do everything we can to make it warm and welcoming,” Cleveland said. “It can’t be home, but we do what we can to make it look and feel like home.”

The village offers a clean, open layout, with wide hallways, comfortable furniture, large televisions, spacious dining areas and high ceilings. The residents bring some of their own furniture to their rooms and private dining areas are available for special occasions. Grandchildren, and even pets, are welcome to visit.

A home away from home?
The trend toward adult care that closely resembled the home environment began in the 1990s, especially in urban areas and in states with large elderly populations. The market for high-end assisted living areas was saturated in the late ’90s but has rebounded in recent years, said Doug Pace, director of assisted living and continuing care for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.

Aging in AmericaIn 2002, about 1 million people lived in 36,399 licensed facilities generally considered assisted-living operations, which do not include skilled-care nursing homes, Pace said. That was an increase from 24,572 such centers in 1998.

While many of those homes are small and house only a few residents, others offer amenities much like The Sweet Life.

The drawback is that homes that offer more amenities cost more, Pace said, and government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid pay little, if any, of the costs.

“Many people are now working on ways to build more affordable models for middle-income people,” he said. “The growth of the elderly population is only going to continue, so that is driving a lot of the current work in the industry.”

High cost of care
The average price for adult care of any kind is $29,000 a year, but some of the higher-end villages can cost up to $60,000 a year. At The Sweet Life at Rosehill, residents pay between $145 and $200 per day — or $52,925 to $73,000 a year — depending on the size of room and other needs. When the assisted living center opens in July, prices will range from $2,800 to $4,000 a month.

Susan Hughes, a community health sciences professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said 47 percent of people 65 and older have annual incomes of less than $29,000.

“We are hoping that providers are champing at the bit to develop affordable assisted living,” Hughes said. “The market is close to saturation, and that’s forcing new people into the market who will be more competitive. That’s going to be a win-win for consumers.”

The owners of The Sweet Life are following another trend — offering continuous care for different stages of elderly life. They operate a village for those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s not far from The Sweet Life. In July, they will open an assisted living village for elderly who don’t require nursing care. And their long-term plans include another village to provide a hospice for those with terminal illnesses.

Providing a continuum of care in one location is the newest wave in adult care, said Bornstein.

“That’s kind of an ideal setup, including every step of the process that people may need before their deaths,” he said. “It’s a healthy trend, driven more by keeping life happy, rather than keeping residents well-behaved. It’s a great thing for those of us who are going to need these things down the road.”

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