Senior Housing: Green Bay’s boomers may fuel senior housing bust

by Scott Williams for Green Bay Gazette

In search of a simpler life, Harold and Bernadine Boncher sold their house and moved into an apartment on Green Bay’s west side in 1988.

The couple, then both in their 60s, enjoyed a new lifestyle together for many years, until Bernadine’s health deteriorated and she died two years ago.

Now living alone, Harold, 88, is dealing with his own health issues, including diabetes and asthma. But he has no plans to leave his comfortable, air-conditioned, $600-a-month apartment.

“I can’t live any better,” he said.

Whether the Green Bay area can provide senior citizens with adequate housing after an approaching “senior boom” is a question that could affect the lives of thousands of people.

With baby boomers reaching retirement age starting this year, the senior population here over the next 20 years is forecasted to double, from fewer than 30,000 to nearly 60,000.

Green Bay has a full range of housing options for seniors, from independent living to intensive care — and everything in between. But the coming shift in demographics has some in the housing business worried that, before long, there might not be enough for everybody.

“In a couple of years, we might have a shortage,” said Dennis Watermolen, owner of the Hamilton Gate Apartments, 160 S. Fisk St., where Harold Boncher lives.

The Aging & Disability Resource Center of Brown County lists the housing options for seniors as follows: 11 complexes for independent living; 15 public-housing apartment buildings; seven residential-care apartment complexes; 28 community-based facilities with more intensive assistance; and 14 nursing homes.

Christel Giesen, a team leader at the center, said the type of housing most likely to face a shortage is assisted living with government subsidies.

“That is something that I would say would be a gap here,” Giesen said.

How much assistance baby boomers will need in their retirement years is another unknown.

Cynthia Legro, administrator of ManorCare Health Services-East in Green Bay, a nursing home and rehabilitation center, suspects that baby boomers will stay independent longer than past generations, partly because of their dedication to wellness programs and healthier lifestyles.

Wherever they choose to live, Legro said, Green Bay seems equipped to meet the demand.

“Overall I think the picture looks pretty good,” she said.

When Virginia Abrahamson’s husband died in 2001, she decided to leave Florida and return to the Midwest. Abrahamson thought about buying a house, but decided instead to rent an apartment to reduce upkeep and maintain her sense of mobility.

Now recovering from breast cancer, the 73-year-old resident of Riverbend Terrace Apartments in Bellevue is happy she settled in Northeastern Wisconsin. Not only has she received good health care here, she said, apartment living has allowed her to make friends and enjoy her new surroundings.

“I like where I’m living. It’s like a neighborhood,” she said. “It gives me my own space.”

For those unable to remain so independent, the options for assisted living run the gamut from minimal support to extensive, daily care. The one choice that has faded in recent years: the traditional nursing home.

Manor Care East once operated as a nursing home but now reserves half of its beds for rehabilitation of seniors following hospital stays. More often than not, those seniors will end up returning home or finding some other housing solution.

The industry has changed, Legro said, because hospitals no longer keep patients beyond a few days and because clients needing long-term care no longer look for conventional nursing homes.

“The options have changed over time,” she said.

Moving into that segment of the industry is the community-based residential facility — a housing option that offers intensive medical care in a setting that is more akin to an apartment building than a hospital.

One such facility is Tender Hearts Assisted Living, 300 Cardinal Lane, Howard, which maintains a staff of certified nursing assistants to provide 20 residents with help bathing, eating and dressing and other basic needs. The facility serves clients who are frail, disabled and terminally ill.

Rachel Goffard, a registered nurse with 20 years of experience in area nursing homes, opened the center in 2009 in partnership with her husband, Chris. Less than two years later, the couple is building an addition that will double the capacity — with some new rooms already accounted for.

Goffard said the appeal of Tenders Hearts is its small size and personalized service.

“We hold ourselves to very high standards,” she said.

The price for such attentive care ranges from about $2,600 to $4,500 a month.

At the other end of the cost spectrum are federally subsidized facilities like Fort Howard Apartments, 141 N. Chestnut Ave., in downtown Green Bay.

Owned by a nonprofit corporation, Fort Howard Apartments offers low-income seniors independent living in exchange for 30 percent of their annual income as rent. Some residents get home-delivered meals, housekeeping or other assistance, but that is strictly at their own expense.

The 96-unit complex already has a waiting list, and manager Barbara Kuehn Schumacher anticipates growing demand as baby boomers squeezed by today’s economy move into retirement and begin looking for affordable housing.

“For the immediate future, it looks pretty good,” she said.

“When it starts ballooning, that’ll be a different story.”


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