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Growth welcome in homes for elderly

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Evelyn Greco, 95, and son Mayor Dick Greco were glad to find assisted living in Tampa.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002

Both for economic and social reasons, seniors want to live independently outside of institutional settings.

VIRGINIA PARK -- Evelyn Greco, 95, has lived in Tampa all her life.

"This is my home," she says.

For decades, she and her family ran King-Greco Hardware in Ybor City. When the business sold, she was 67 and a widow. She took a job at the old Broadway Bank and worked into her 80s.

Last year, surgery left her unable to manage her Bayshore Boulevard apartment. She moved into an assisted living facility.

"It was a difficult decision," says Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, Evelyn's son.

"I didn't want to have to worry about her -- that something would happen in the middle of the night."

Greco and his wife, Linda McClintock-Greco, looked at several places before settling on At Home With Friends, across from Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. He likes the cheery atmosphere. The home is also a quick drive from Harbour Island, where the mayor lives.

Ten years ago, the Grecos would have had fewer choices. In 1992 there were only 49 assisted living facilities in Hillsborough County, according to Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration. Now, there are nearly three times as many.

In Evelyn Greco's 33629 zip code, change was even more dramatic -- from one home in 1992 to six homes now. The area encompasses some of Tampa's wealthiest neighborhoods, including Culbreath Isles, Sunset Park, Palma Ceia, New Suburb Beautiful and Bayshore Beautiful.

As South Tampa's population ages, armies of professional caregivers emerge. Some turn private homes into hostels for the elderly. Others operate high-rises with tony Bayshore Boulevard addresses.

They illustrate a growing trend in Florida's health care industry: aging in place.

There's a push toward community-based care, says gerontologist Mary Kaplan of the University of South Florida.

"We've found that nursing home care is quite expensive and also people prefer less institutional settings," she says.

Last year the Florida Legislature placed a moratorium on nursing home construction until July 1, 2006. The bill was designed to limit Medicaid expenditures on nursing homes while encouraging "less institutional methods of long-term care."

The economic incentives were clear.

According to the Hillsborough County Department of Aging Services, community-based assistance costs between $12,000 and $25,000 per person, per year. In contrast, nursing home care may cost more than $47,000.

"It's also personal preference," Kaplan says. "People want to be independent."

The county, along with many non-profit organizations, offers services to support independence.

Harold Strum, 75, shows up at the Westshore Senior Center on Spruce Street every morning at 9:30. His wife drops him off, then runs errands. By 3 p.m. she's waiting outside.

A stroke affected his balance and macular degeneration has clouded his vision. That's why she avoids leaving him home alone.

"My wife's afraid I'll fall," he says.

For the last few months he's been a part of the Senior Adult Day Care Program at the year-old Westshore Senior Center.

"It really gives caregivers a chance to get out of the house and do what they need to," says Mary Jo McKay, who oversees the county's six senior centers.

Another new facility -- the Barksdale Senior Center -- was dedicated June 7 at MacFarlane Park, offering exercise, crafts, dancing, cards, a pool table and computer classes.

Taking a load off family members increases the likelihood that senior citizens will be welcome at home.

"We want people to stay in the community and function for as long as possible," McKay says. Her department's mission is to encourage independence and physical, social and emotional well being.

The center's adult day care program busies seniors with arts and crafts, bingo, gardening and puzzles.

Some come just to get out of the house. Others have memory disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. A nurse checks them weekly and is on site for emergencies.

Aging in place means aging in familiar surroundings.

"It's very important to keep residents in their area," says Glenda Fusia, administrator of Adam's House, an assisted living facility on S MacDill Avenue.

She says most of the residents in her ALF once lived within a few miles and now remain close to friends.

In the past, people would move south to Sun City Center, Hillsborough's retirement mecca. Many moved to Pinellas County, where there were more accommodations -- three times as many as Hillsborough in 1992.

But for the Greco family, moving Evelyn to Pinellas County or Sun City Center was "out of the question," Dick Greco says.

Daily visits from friends and family keep Evelyn feeling like a part of her community, he said.

For most, the continuum of care begins with independent living -- either at home or in an apartment designed for seniors.

When health problems begin to affect daily activities such as bathing, cooking and cleaning, they find help at assisted living facilities.

When they become too ill or frail to live alone or require 24-hour nursing care, some make the transition to nursing homes.

Retirement communities such as The Grand Court on Bayshore Boulevard offer friendship and a neighbor's watchful eye. Residents can participate in all sorts of activities and educational opportunities while living independently.

Apartments are equipped with pull cords and intercoms, in case something should happen in the middle of the night.

Some floors in the 12-story building are dedicated to those who need closer care, but each resident has a private room.

Evelyn's room in At Home With Friends is filled with things important to her -- pictures of her three grandchildren and an ornate antique couch.

Bud Fultz, 62, operates the home with his wife Nena, 64.

Fultz had worked in the airline industry for 25 years before deciding to go into business.

At first, the two tried child care centers.

"We loved the children but wanted to give more," he said.

They've had a hand in three assisted living facilities south of Kennedy Boulevard.

They opened Nena's Comfort of Home in 1993. After 3 months they were turning people away from the eight-bed center.

A year later they opened their first At Home With Friends on Platt Street.

In 1998, they opened the 34-bed At Home With Friends on Bay to Bay Boulevard. They sold the Platt Street home, which remains open.

"There are so many in Pinellas," Fultz says. "We really had a need."

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