Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


 “If you plan on growing old, you want to grow old in Arlington.” So proclaimed Barbara Thode, service coordinator at the renowned Culpepper Garden retirement community, speaking this month to a passel of dinner guests from the Arlington Committee of 100.

Thode was thanking the Arlington Agency on Aging for the county-provided social services on which her facility on Pershing Drive depends “to help people aging in place with dignity and independence.”

If you yourself are not in the relevant age bracket, then perhaps, like me, you have relatives whose unfolding gerontological predicaments prod you to get familiar with the labyrinth of issues surrounding care for the elderly.

Culpepper Garden is a 37-year-old nonprofit founded by 1960s-era volunteers from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. It provides both independent and assisted living services to low- and moderate- income elder residents.

It was named for Charles Culpepper (1888-1980), a notable Agriculture Department botanist who gave the once-rural Arlington land he’d owned for five decades to the cause of elder housing. (I met Culpepper in the late ’70s on a reporting assignment, when he was nearing 90.) His innovative daffodils and day lilies still thrive on the grounds.

His namesake facility has a national reputation. Its assisted living wing was first to receive funding from the Housing and Urban Development Department, and in 2011 it won Virginia’s Commonwealth Council on Aging’s Best Practices Award. It also houses the largest of Arlington’s six senior centers, which offer classes, lectures, games, crafts and music.

Culpepper Gardens’ 349 residents (the vast majority of them female) range in age from 62 to 103, and range in capabilities from those who work and drive to those needing round-the-clock care. Their average income is $1,200 a month, and since care costs $2,000 a month, the facility relies on donations.

All of them benefit from taxpayer-provided social services, protection, mental health counseling, transportation, legal aid for wills, special large-print library books, and the county’s tax relief for the elderly.

But none of it comes easy. Tom Fonseca, chair of the Arlington Long-Term Care Residences Commission, told the gathering that in national ratings of nursing homes, Arlington’s don’t fare well – of 13 residences, only the private Jefferson has a four-star rating from Health and Human Services Department. He rattles off the demographics that make this no small issue: Of Arlington’s 211,000 residents, some 2,800 are 85 or older, 8,000 are 75 or older, and 18,000 are 65 or older.

Don Redfoot, a policy adviser with AARP’s Public Policy Institute, was there to congratulate Arlington for its preparations for the coming onslaught of baby-boomer retirements. The county planned ahead – its task force plan on elderly readiness was adopted by the county board in December 2007. He stressed the value of relying less on institutional nursing homes and more on keeping the elderly connected to their homes and community.

What is clear is that there’s no simple path that applies to all families. Many elderly resist change and understandably cling to independence long after the time to get help has passed.

It’s a tribute to the network of elderly housing professionals that their solutions mix the public and private, the paid and volunteer, the insured and the out-of-pocket payers.

When it comes to growing old, the end of life isn’t fair. But Arlington takes on the challenge. 

Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com