The door opens and a slight woman with a quick smile, round glasses, comfy gray sweats and short, snowy hair pushes her walker into the hall.
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Four months ago, Mary Clancy, 89, was living in her Lakewood apartment. But she just couldn't do it anymore - the cooking, the cleaning, the driving. So she gave her car to a delighted nephew and moved into one of the 111 rooms at the Libby Bortz Assisted Living Center in Littleton.
"It's great here," she says, unhesitatingly, as she makes her way down the floral-carpeted hall to find the Scrabble game. "If you can't be at home, this is the next best thing."
The words gladden Dawn Shepherd, who stands nearby, eyes sparkling.
But then, she knows the secret to this place.
The brick-and-stucco structure was built on a foundation of innovative stubbornness and passionate concern for the well-being of the older community who needed, not only a place to call home, but also one they could afford.
"It's a love thing," Shepherd says. "There's tons of love in this building."
The center, just off Main Street in downtown Littleton, opened its doors 20 years ago as one of the country's first affordable assisted living facilities when Shepherd, now 68, was director of the Littleton Housing Authority.
Back then, few assisted living centers existed - the concept was just becoming part of the senior landscape discussion. But what made this building particularly unique was its owner - a housing authority, an agency dedicated to providing housing for low-income families and individuals, one not usually in the business of assisted living.
That meant the Libby Bortz center, which would help its residents with the daily care they needed, had to be affordable.
To do that, the housing authority worked with a group of creative thinkers with experience in senior housing called The Raleigh Group and Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics, a now-defunct corporation and the tax credit partner that helped finance the project.
"The team just got so close," Shepherd says. "It was really an amazing moment in time - everyone worked so hard toward an end goal."
The use of federal tax credits allowed the housing authority to save $200 a month per unit and ensure its affordability in perpetuity, Shepherd says. It also made the center one of the first - if not the first - in the country to be financed by tax credits.
Today, a one-room apartment at Libby Bortz costs $1,784 a month, well below the national average for assisted living. That includes three meals a day, weekly housekeeping and laundry and medication supervision.
The Genworth 2014 Cost of Care Survey, which has surveyed senior care services throughout the country for 11 years, found the national median monthly rate for assisted living was $3,500, an increase of 4.29 percent from 2009.
Unforgivably, housing for seniors in this country - at a time in their lives when they should feel safe and comfortable - has instead become "a crushing burden." The statement comes from SeniorLiving.org, a website dedicated to senior living and retirement, which reports that "finding affordable senior housing may be one of the biggest challenges facing seniors and their loved ones."
And the U.S. Small Business Development Center predicts a significant unmet demand for assisted living facilities by 2020 as the population between 65 and 84 grows by nearly 39 percent.
So, where will we live?
Most importantly, where can we afford to live with dignity?
Shepherd pondered those questions long ago from her office in a subsidized senior apartment building in Littleton where she watched her seniors, as they aged, require more help with daily living activities.
"Their only choice was a nursing home," she says, "and they didn't need a nursing home."
Shepherd - who retired from the Littleton Housing Authority (now called South Metro Housing Options) in 2001, but soon took a job heading the housing authority in neighboring Englewood until retiring definitively a year ago - decided to provide a choice.
After eight years of planning and work, doors to the center, named after longtime Littleton social worker and housing authority board member Libby Bortz, opened in January 1994. Shepherd interviewed all the prospective residents personally. The move, she says, almost immediately "enhanced their lives and prolonged their lives."
The apartment space was small. But it was their space.
"There were enough things that they were giving up in the aging process without having to have a stranger as a roommate," Shepherd says. "That's not the way we wanted our grandmother or our own parents to live."
With no kitchens in apartments and a community dining room, the model encouraged socialization. Not isolation.
Small changes, such as staff dispensing correct medication and providing laundry service, sparked dramatic changes. Less confusion, more pride in appearance, more confidence.
And, there was the warmth that wrapped residents close, because, of course, this was a labor of love.
● ● ●
On a recent chilly afternoon, a few days after a 20th anniversary reunion and celebration, piano notes drift into the lobby from the finely appointed dining room. The gas fireplace is lit. A man in his 90s sits in an armchair, eyes closed, whistling softly to the tune, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."
Tables the hue of dark cherrywood stand next to tall-backed armchairs and love seats the color of wine, gold and green. Several cozy living rooms are scattered throughout the three floors, along with a courtyard garden, TV rooms and a community kitchen. Wide, third-floor balconies with white wicker furniture face glorious mountain views.
In one hallway is the Salute to Veterans Wall, where portraits of loved ones who served the country continuously flow across a television mounted on the blue wall.
Jeanne Whalen, 72, sits on her walker across from the screen, watching for the photos of her two brothers, who served in the Korean War.
"Not this one," she says, eyes on the scrolling pictures.
"Not this next one.
"The next one is my two brothers. They were in the Korean War."
The photos, taken in the 1950s, identify Dan Whalen, Navy, and Paul Whalen, Air Force. A year apart, they were 10 years older than Jeanne.
"I come here every day," she says, because "I love them and I miss them."
Jeanne, who has emphysema, moved from New York a year ago to be near her daughter. The move has been good. "You get the help you need, and I've made lots of friends," she says. "Praise the Lord for this place."
Downstairs, the only resident who has lived here since the first year arrives from an outing. Virginia Chynoweth, 92, carefully wheels her walker to a chair.
She peers through her glasses.
"I like everything about it," she says about her home. She's able to go wherever she pleases. And, "I feel safe."
In the end, that's what a home should be - not a crushing burden, just simply safe. Especially when we're old.
For Dawn Shepherd, that means the world.
If the time should come, she already knows which room she'd choose.
It'd be easy, after all, to live in a place built with love.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.
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