Tuesday, August 18, 2015
(Editor’s note: WestportNow’s special series on seniors and housing today focuses on seniors who have left Westport but wish they could have stayed.)
By James Lomuscio
Like many Westport residents, they came to town for the schools, but they stayed for the community and all it offered. And they wanted to spend the rest of their lives here surrounded by friends, familiarity, and a love of place.
But now in their 70s through 90s, they live elsewhere—Redding, Bridgeport, Darien, even as far as Charleston, S.C.—to name a few.
They say they did not want to leave Westport, but the lack of adequate senior housing, whether affordable or not, was a driving force.
Some say they had hoped Westport would join the ranks of many other Fairfield County towns with its own senior housing complex, 60 percent of the units affordable, near the downtown on Baron’s South. Such a complex had been on the drawing boards for seven years, the subject of many meetings of town boards and commissions.
But with an unexpected Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) vote in March, declaring the 22-acre, town-owned Baron’s South property open space, a move supported by a narrow margin of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), the dream vanished.
Here is a look at some longtime Westporters who had contributed to the town over the years, wanted to stay, but reluctantly moved, not because they needed affordable housing, but because their homes were too big to handle, and they needed support services.
All say they are reasonably happy in their new places. They like the services and amenities, as well as the new friends they have made. Their biggest regret is that they were not able to age in place in Westport, their hometown for decades.
Finding a new Home in Bridgeport
Gloria Cole Sugarman, 78, says that Westport, where she lived for 40 years, will always be her home even though she now lives in Bridgeport.
It’s the town where she and her first husband raised their now adult children and where she grew as a journalist, working for local and regional newspapers and magazines.
In 2000, then single, she married longtime friend Tracy Sugarman, a renowned illustrator who had been recently widowed. They settled into his majestic, waterfront home in Owenoke Park.
She recalls more than a dozen wonderful years with Tracy, who died Jan. 20, 2013. But living alone in the huge house was painful. In fact, she and Tracy had been talking about downsizing to senior housing.
On several occasions she said they looked at The Watermark at 3030 Park Ave., a continuing care residential community (CCRC) in Bridgeport.
Today, that’s where Gloria Sugarman lives independently in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, large enough for her grandchildren to stay when they visit.
“I left Westport a year-and-a-half ago,“she said. “I sold the house. I was reluctant to leave Westport because I had lived there for 40 years, but there was no place to go in Westport, and this place in Bridgeport offered a lot of things I couldn’t get in Westport.
“It’s independent living with several levels of care, and I’m on the ninth floor with a balcony and views of the Long Island Sound,” she added.
She likes that Watermark has a huge dining hall where she can mingle with other seniors, or if she prefers, to cook in her own apartment. Longtime Westport friends Larry and Mary-Lou Weisman and Alan H. Nevas, retired senior U.S. District Court judge, and his wife Janet often visit, she says. She also found former Westporters Irene and Bill Backalenick living there. Bill recently died.
Another transplanted Westporter and longtime friend is Denny Davidoff. At 82, Davidoff seems to defy the stereotype of getting old, instead finding her new community in Bridgeport as a means to thrive.
A take charge woman who had owned a Westport-based national advertising company, Davidoff is now president of the complex’s residents’ association.
She still drives, keeping her car parked in the driveway of her 2,100-square-foot Watermark cottage, one of the few Watermark cottages. And she still sails, a pastime she has enjoyed since the 1960s.. On a recent Tuesday she spoke about sailing on a friend’s boat to the Maine coast over the weekend.
“Yesterday morning I woke up on Cuttyhunk Island (off Massachusetts),” she said.
Davidoff moved to Watermark in 2010, a year after her the death of her husband, Jerry Davidoff, who served on the Westport Board of Education in the 1980s. It was not a direct move from Westport, as she and her husband in the 1990s had downsized to a waterfront condominium in East Norwalk, one with a 40-foot dock, she says.
But she, too, still considers Westport home and is remains a member of the Westport Unitarian Church. She would have moved back had there been senior accommodations, not affordable senior housing, just age-in-place senior housing.
For Gloria Sugarman, it also was not a matter of affordable senior housing, which had been a main focus of the planned complex on Baron’s South. She was left a widow of means with her Westport home selling for almost $2 million. It was a matter of finding a place that provided an array of activities and support.
At Watermark, she enjoys the swimming pool, a gymnasium/health center, shops, a branch of People’s United Bank, “gardens and a lot of places to walk around,” she said. There is also a salon where she can get hair hair done for $39.
“In Westport I paid $350 for coloring and a haircut,” she says.
Gloria Sugarman says she likes that Watermark offers a cab service for its residents, “$7.50 round trip anywhere in the greater Bridgeport area.”
“I no longer drive because of macular degeneration,” she said.
Failing vision has not slowed her down in other areas. She is currently the facility’s new director of activities.
“I do all the bookings,” she says about lectures, reading, art and music events held in Watermark’s theater-sized auditorium.
While Gloria Sugarman says she dreams about returning to a similar living situation in Westport, she accepts it is not in her future.
“How much time do we have to hang in there?” she askd. “We’re in our late 70s and 80s. Things happen, and people fall. They break a hip. They lose their eyesight. That’s why you end up with all these things under one roof. People go from one thing to another.”
She paused for a moment, trying to figure out why a similar facility that would have been developed by Jonathan Rose Cos. and Watermark had been halted by Westport’s P&Z.
Without much warning, she said, the commission declared 22-acre, town owned property open space—even though the planned senior complex would take up just 3.3 acres, leaving the rest open space to be maintained by the developer.
“Do you think that in Westport there’s an aversion to older people?” she asked, acknowledging that seniors make up more than 20 percent of the population. “Maybe there’s an aversion to older people in their walkers being seen in the downtown.”
Redding’s Meadow Ridge, ‘Westport North’
Collectively, Bill Buckley, 87, and Judy Hamer, 76, lived in Westport for almost a century. Hamer, a retired professor, and her late husband lived on Webb Road, where they raised their children. Buckley, a documentary filmmaker, and his late wife lived on Half Mile Common.
A decade ago, Hamer and Buckley met at a July 4 party at the Westport home of mutual friend, Tracy Sugarman.
“I was taken by this beautiful woman,” Buckley recalls, adding that it wasn’t long before their courtship led to marriage.
“Both of our spouses had died, and here we were with these two big houses,” he continued.
Downsizing was essential, he said. With no appropriate senior housing in town, they headed north, but not too far. Seven years ago they moved to Meadow Ridge, a 295-unit continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in the Georgetown section of Redding.
“I always wanted a garden I didn’t have to weed,” Buckley quipped as he and Hamer ate lunch in the spacious, conservatory-like atrium surrounded by tropical plants and fish ponds under a an expansive, pitched skylight.
While Redding was not his first choice to live out his days, Buckley says Meadow Ridge was the best option.
“We’re 20 minutes from Trader Joe’s and 25 minutes from Compo Beach, so I guess you can say we haven’t really moved out,” he said.
“But the appeal of Baron’s South was that you could walk downtown,” Hamer chimed in. “I came for the schools, but I stayed for the community.”
She added that if there had been a senior complex in the downtown area, “I would have moved there in a second.
“I think the general perception they have of older people is that they should just go away somewhere, be out of sight and die,” Hamer said.
“Yes, ‘Don’t bother the rest of the community,’ even though we started here,” Bill said.
Located on one of on the highest points in Fairfield County, Meadow Ridge sits on 136 acres of rolling hills and meadows, with southern views of the Long Island Sound, especially when the leaves are down.
According to its website, the facility occupies less than one-quarter of the land. Meadow Ridge is replete with courtyards, an atrium, swimming poll, walking trails, an auditorium, salon, shops and other amenities—many of which had been planned for Baron;s South.
At Meadow Ridge, seniors buy into the place, paying a substantial amount of money from the sale of their homes, followed by monthly rent that is far from affordable. It is the same at Watermark.
Buckley says that he and Hamer put down about $500,000, “and your family gets it back when they wheel you out.” Buckley expects a full return since he and Hamer are paying top dollar rent that includes services, from housecleaning to meals. In CCRC’s, what the heirs recoup is based on a sliding scale of how much residents paid monthly.
“This is a unique place,” says Buckley. “It’s fantastic here, with its health center, general independent living. There’s nothing that comes close to this in Westport.”
He credits its health center and rehabilitation therapy for his recovery last year from a severe bout of sciatica that left him immobile.
“I would be dead without that place,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here.”
As he spoke, a man at a nearby table got up and held onto his walker.
“That’s Stu Bernard; he’s from Westport,” Buckley said.
Bernard, 96, who had worked as the publisher of Outdoor Life magazine, moved to Westport in 1959. He served on the RTM from 1995 to 1997. He came to Meadow Ridge in 2003. Macular degeneration has left him blind, and he says Meadow Ridge support and transportation services, as well as friends, help him get around.
“I was in Westport last week,” he said. “I went to the Playhouse.”
He described himself as a prime mover of the Westport Center for Senior Activities, which opened in 2004, and said he wished he could have stayed in town.
“You’ll find my name on a goddamn plaque outside the goddamn Senior Center,” he said.
While Hamer says she and her husband love their fourth-floor apartment, she would have preferred to be where seniors could easily mingle with diverse age groups.
“It’s still a ghetto,” Hamer said about feeling cut off from younger people.
Hamer and Buckley agreed that today’s Westport is a lot different from when they moved to town.
“I’m certainly not against change, but change has to have a sense of history and rootedness,” she said. “So, I think one of the things Westport would have gained with senior housing is a sense of historical roots. A sense of its own mortality. The impermanence of everything.
“If you cut off one part of the population, you have a false sense of what life is,” she added.
Next: Life for ex-Westporters in South Carolina
For the previous part of this series, click here.
Posted 08/18/15 at 05:00 AM Permalink
Unfortunately, even if the previous plan had gone through, very few of the Westport senior population would have been accommodated.
Perhaps another Whitney glen type development with elevators this time would be more appropriate. Add a dining hall and visiting nurse services.
Not every town has a senior living facility…may be sad but it’s reality.
No matter how you view it, whether you think condos are a good idea or whether you favor continuing care or some other form of affordable housing for seniors, there is simply no excuse for having ended the discussion with Jonathan Rose and/or for re-zoning Baron’s South to deter its use for that purpose. It’s the very best location for that purpose - near to downtown and the Senior Center - and the deal that was being proposed was a win for both sides, preserving a large amount of open space while, at the same time generating substantial revenue and providing at least some of the badly needed senior housing. It’s clear as day that the current P&Z majority is neither smart enough nor sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the community to continue in ofice. I’m hoping we can change that at the ballot box in November.
Imo, it’s a shame we’re shelving our seniors in the manner in which we are in many of our communities, as if they’ve nothing to offer anymore. Lest we forget, all of us will one day be seniors. I wonder how we will feel, sitting on the shelf, vacated by today’s seniors. Who will fight for us.
Please remember the Barons South project COULD NOT guarantee Westporters space in the proposed housing. Against the law and rules.
What we need to do a designate an area for senior housing that is NOT tied to CT rules and laws so that we can guarantee. We could reduce the taxes for that housing and require an age minimum and no children so we don’t experience cost for our schools.
It’s not hard to do, just focus on getting it done.