John Spevak: Model seniors complex

November 7, 2008 

JOHN SPEVAK

Now that I'm in my 60s, I wonder more and more about where I'll be living as I get older.

I'm not thinking of what city or state, but what kind of housing in which I'll be living in my 70s, 80s, and 90s, if I live that long.

Earlier this month I visited my brother, who lives in a "55-and-older" residence in Medina, Ohio (about 25 miles south of Cleveland). This complex has created an environment which seems very well suited to older adults.

I'd like to devote today's column to this complex, not that I expect anyone from Los Banos to move to Ohio, but because I think it's the kind of place, wherever it might be built, that cities and developers should consider.

Let me provide a little historical context for this complex, which happens to be called Forest Meadows Villas. In the 1970s in Medina, a group of senior citizens went to one of the prominent developers in town, a fellow named Melvin Gerspacher, and asked him to design a place where older adults would enjoy living.

He created a plan for such a residence and took it to the city council. At first they were resistant. A place just for seniors? Would such a place lower the values of nearby property? The city council members didn't want to approve the idea.

Gerspacher relayed this resistance to the senior citizens who had approached him. They came to the next council meeting. The council members discovered something important about older adults. As a group they have strong opinions and they're not afraid to voice them. In addition, they are generally smart and well educated, and they vote in large numbers.

After the seniors packed the council chambers and expressed their opinions, the council voted to approve the plan for the complex, provided that a six-foot wire fence was erected around it, apparently to prevent overly active seniors from getting out and causing trouble. The complex was built, to the specifications requested by the older adults, and was soon filled and had a waiting list. The occupants were some of the best citizens in the community.

As Melvin Gerspacher got older, he started thinking more about where he would like to live in his senior years. So he began planning another seniors' complex in Medina. Using property next to a small spring-fed lake, he came up with a design that was an improvement on the original plan.

The design includes 135 rental units. The base unit, with 640 square feet, has one bedroom, a bathroom, a compact kitchen, a small pantry/storage room, and a living room. Some other units, with a total of 820 square feet, have an additional space called a mid-room, which could be used as an office or computer room. Some larger units, called town houses, with 1,040 square feet, have instead of a mid-room a small second floor including another bedroom and bathroom.

Each unit has a front porch and a small back patio with a little plot of ground that can be made into a flower or vegetable garden. Each unit also had a carport, which enables residents who can still drive to park their car next to their home and walk in the back door. There are also several laundry rooms throughout the complex, one for about every 30 units; the mailboxes are also in that room.

Gersbacher also made sure there was enough green space within and surrounding the complex to provide a sense of openness, and he planted plenty of trees and shrubs.

He also included a central club room or gathering place, and he developed a calendar of activities in which residents could participate, including card playing, bingo, quilting, and more, depending on the desires of the residents.

He made sure the complex was located near commercially zoned property, so that residents could be just a two- or three-block walk from grocery, drug, and retail stores.

To ensure people and their places were cared for, Gerspacher hired a knowledgeable and friendly maintenance man who could fix things when they broke down, keep the grounds neat and trim, and congenially visit and talk with the residents.

The overall result was a place which older adults could rent and feel just the right combination of independence and security, of privacy and community. It had the key features of a home (front porch, back patio, garden, and carport) without the work of keeping up a lawn or fixing a broken pipe or paying property tax.

He included in the rent the cost of water, sewer, and gas, leaving just electricity, telephone, and cable TV as additional costs. Residents sign a yearly lease, but do not have condo or association fees. (The monthly rent currently runs from $695 to $845 per month, depending on the size of the unit.)

Gerspacher completed the project in 1988 and moved into one of the units. (At age 91, he still lives there.) He has had little problem renting the units. His occupancy rate is almost always close to 100 percent.

In the past few years he has turned over the management of the complex to his son Dave and daughter-in-law Diane, who have the same spirit of caring for the residents that Melvin has. Dave has added some new services recently, including contracting with a local grocery store to make available nourishing microwavable meals,

In the past year I've had the opportunity to communicate with Dave and Diane and observed their commitment to the residents. I've also talked often with Erv, the maintenance man, who has always been friendly and helpful. And last month I chatted with Melvin himself.

I think the key element in successful seniors' resident living is what the Gerspachers themselves provide--a focus on customer service and customer loyalty.

Forest Meadows Villa incorporates a great deal of what older adults need, both physically and psychologically. It provides a good example for other senior citizen complexes around the country to follow.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a regular Enterprise columnist, are encouraged and can be sent via e-mail to spevak@telis.org.

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