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Disparities Clear At Senior Living Communities In San Diego

One of the most difficult decisions facing seniors is where to live in their final years. In the next in our Envision series on Aging in San Diego, KPBS reporter Alison St John takes us to two senior communities that offer independent and assisted living,: one upscale, the other low rent.

One of the most difficult decisions facing seniors is where to live in their final years. Our series 'Aging in San Diego' continues with a visit to two senior communities that offer independent and assisted living.

Ina and Irwin Rubenstein live in an airy, seventh-floor apartment at Vi, an upscale continuing care retirement community east of La Jolla.

“We decided a long time ago,” Ina said, “we needed to find a place where [we] could age in place and not have to worry about getting sick later on.”

The Rubensteins, who are 76 and 80, wanted a community that has assisted living and skilled-nursing care for residents.

“We looked for one where the monthly fees do not change when you move from one section to another,” Irwin explained. ”There were only three in the area.“

They chose Vi because it is close to where their daughter lives and because they loved the apartment they were offered.

Theresa Latosh, Vi‘s community relations manager, said that to qualify to live at Vi the Rubensteins had to be both financially and physically healthy.

“The idea is that you come in when you are healthy and active,” she said. ”You live with us for the rest of your life at whatever level of care you should need. If you need to move to higher levels of care you don’t need to pay any more than what you did in independent living.”

Residents at Vi pay an entrance fee of between $220,000 and $1 million, depending on the size of their apartment. The monthly fee runs from about $3,000 to more than $6,000. All residents have access to the community’s amenities.

There are six dining rooms, each with its own menu, and Executive Chef Jim Smith caters to every taste.

“In the restaurant downstairs, we have more comfort foods,” he said. ”We have your meatloaf, your roasted chicken, turkey, that sort of thing, and we also have fresh fish every day. Upstairs, it’s more like you’re going out to dinner at a nice restaurant downtown.”

Theresa Latosh took us to the workout room and the pool, where they have "aqua fit" classes three days a week, and an arthritis class.

We visited the spa, which offers everything you might find at a full service salon and spa. “Even things like pumpkin facials,” Latosh told us.

She said that there was a waiting list to get into Vi - until the economic downturn.

“However, in 2008 things changed a bit,“ she said. “And it happened to have coincided with our new tower with an additional 184 apartments. Things slowed down.”

Now Vi is at 80 percent capacity. The facility offers potential residents advisers to help them figure out how to sell their homes so they can make the financial commitment to join the community.

In this economic climate, upscale senior living communities often have trouble filling their space.

At the other end of the financial spectrum there's City Height Square, an "affordable" assisted-living complex, which has a waiting list. It’s run by a private non-profit, Senior Community Centers.

Seventy-six-year-old Josie Davis lives on the second floor in a studio apartment. Her late husband was in the military, and she has his pension of about a $1,000 a month.

“The rent is cheap,” Davis says. “It is $577, because I cannot afford the one-bedroom apartment – it is more than $600.”

Davis lives alone, but she's surrounded by her memories. Photographs of distant family members in the Philippines - and of herself as a 17 year old - cover the walls.

“When I was young,“ she said wistfully, ”I didn’t have as many wrinkles as I have now.”

Activities here are limited.

“Some residents play dominoes and card games in the lunch room,” Davis said. “And they have movies every Friday.”

Breakfast and lunch are served in the small dining room, and Davis goes to the Food Bank to cook for herself in the evening. There’s a nurse, a social worker and a mental health worker for several hundred residents.

Paul Downey of Senior Community Centers said rent is subsidized so residents don’t pay more than 60 percent of their income. The housing was built with a combination of federal tax credits, state redevelopment money and private philanthropy.

“If we can provide people with an affordable place to live,” he said, “ we provide nutrition, we provide supporting services, people can live here for the rest of their lives and die here. (That is) actually is a good thing, because it means they are not dying in an emergency room or a hospital or in a long-term care facility.”

Downey is concerned about the future of low-income senior housing.

“We look at the gaps in services and the number of seniors who don’t have adequate income in San Diego and the state of California, and when you double the number of seniors in this country between today and 2030, it’s a real problem,” he said.

Up in her little studio, Josie Davis said she is grateful.

“What I have here is a place to sleep,” she said. ”A place to come home to. So I am thankful for that, that I am not on the street.“

Research by the Oakland Insight Center suggests 46 percent of seniors in San Diego struggle to make ends meet. The center's Elder Index calculates that a single senior needs an income of $23,000 a year to get by in San Diego, and a couple needs $30,000.

Downey says most of the seniors living in City Heights Square live on less than $12,000.

He says it’s becoming more difficult to build affordable housing, and the number of seniors is expected to double by 2030.

Health and Human Services: SD Senior Health Report

A report from the Health and Human Services Agency on San Diego County senior health.

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