Cover Story

Old but not isolated

As the first baby boomers near retirement age, questions beyond the financial loom for a graying America: What happens to the elderly when they are put out to distant pasture? How to put community in retirement community? Westminster Towers reaches out to church and school to show a better way

Issue: "Endings & beginnings," Jan. 13, 2007

ROCK HILL, S.C.- On a cold December morning in this small South Carolina town, Nell Carrier is waiting on company. Carrier, 86, is a resident of Westminster Towers, a retirement community developed by Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). The church sits just across the parking lot from the Towers, along with the congregation's K-12 Westminster Catawba Christian School.

At 10:30 a.m. sharp, 15 4-year-olds in bulky coats and brightly colored gloves march single-file past the 10-foot Christmas tree in the Towers' main lobby. The pre-kindergarten class from the Westminster church school gathers here once a week in a cozy living room in the Towers' assisted living wing to listen to residents read stories. With the holidays upon them, they sit Indian-style at the foot of Carrier's rocking chair while she reads Mrs. Wishy Washy's Christmas and holds the pictures high for the children to see.

Carrier, who has no children, says she looks forward to the weekly story time. "It brings back good memories," she told WORLD. "It reminds me of my nieces and nephews." The retired U.S. Army nurse now suffers from severe arthritis but is thankful for opportunities like these to stay active and help others: "To me that's the most important thing in the world."

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Carrier is one of 4.2 million people in the country over the age of 85, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). The elderly population in the United States is soaring as life expectancies increase: More than 36 million people in the country are over 65, compared with just 3.1 million a century ago. DHS estimates that the 85-plus population will more than double over the next 20 years.

As the aging population grows, so does the need for good housing and care. Nearly 20 percent of people over age 85 live in nursing homes, according to DHS. But the problem is that many among the elderly are psychologically and spiritually isolated. That's why Westminster church nearly three decades ago began discussing plans to build a retirement community. Though the church was new, had less than 300 members, and didn't own property at the time, its leaders had a vision for building a retirement center that would help aging members and others to avoid isolation.

The Rock Hill area already had a handful of nursing homes, but none offered what the church had in mind: a place for seniors who want to live independently, but also want low-maintenance apartments in a tight-knit community close to church and children. The church decided the nonprofit facility would also care for those with more serious health needs through assisted living and nursing home wings.

Church members made substantial donations. Local banks offered reasonable financing. Still, it took nearly 15 years to raise money, buy property, draw plans, and build the facility next to the church. Westminster Towers opened in June 1989. The six-story facility now houses 145 independent apartments, 29 assisted living units, and 66 nursing home rooms. The average age of residents is 82.

Tony Fountain, president and CEO of Westminster Towers for three years, called residents by name on a recent mid-morning tour. In the facility's main living room, residents visit on comfortable couches and red wingback chairs. A small library in the corner is packed with books, newspapers, magazines, and puzzles. Large windows overlook an outdoor patio with potted flowers and wooden rocking chairs.

A newly hired wellness director coordinates fitness programs and exercise classes using the facility's indoor swimming pool. A packed activities calendar offers something to do throughout the week: Bible studies, movie nights, day trips, dessert socials, Big Band nights, square dances, and poetry clubs.

Crucially, many residents make the short walk across the parking lot to attend services at the church on Sundays. Younger church members make regular trips to the Towers as well: They lead Bible studies and hymn sings, and check on residents who live alone. They visit residents with limited mobility in the assisted living and nursing home wings, and often read or pray with them. "The residents like knowing the church hasn't forgotten about them," says Fountain.

But the residents haven't forgotten about the church either. Many are regularly involved with service opportunities, and Fountain says his staff is eager to encourage them to remain as productive and active as possible: "Here is a group of people with a host of talent and wisdom and gifts. We should be thinking about what they can offer us as well."

To that end, the Towers' staff facilitates a wide range of volunteer opportunities: Residents mentor at-risk children in a local public elementary school, volunteer for Hospice, play instruments in the church orchestra, fold and stuff church bulletins, work at a local Alzheimer's association, and raise money for mission trips. "Some people think if you're in a senior living community you're at the end of your life and you're waiting for the Lord to call you home," says Fountain. "But these people are still looking for opportunities to serve."

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