A Pair's Persistence Pays Off
New York Times Retirement Section
By ELIZABETH POPE
EXETER, N.H. -- Most days, Maryanna Hatch catalogs her late husband's artwork while her friend Rosemary Coffin writes a memoir of childhood in England.
As residents of RiverWoods at Exeter, a $45 million nonprofit life-care retirement community here, these women enjoy comfortable apartments, a health club, swimming pool, library and an art studio. Meals are provided and so is lifetime health care.
What most of their neighbors do not realize is that RiverWoods would not exist without Mrs. Hatch and Mrs. Coffin. They are among a small group of farsighted individuals who founded the community.
"This is home to us, not a decorator's paradise," said Mrs. Hatch, escorting a visitor around the landscaped grounds. "At our time of life, you don't want to waste time repairing the roof or mowing the lawn. Those things sap your energy for learning, growing and enjoying your later years."
RiverWoods, like many nonprofit continuing care communities, differs from ordinary retirement complexes by guaranteeing residents housing and health care for life.
Because of the high costs and regulatory obstacles, most of the country's 2,100 nonprofit facilities are sponsored by universities, religious or fraternal groups or health-care organizations, according to the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. Ordinary citizens — especially those with little money — almost never build such communities themselves. But that is what these two women did.
Mrs. Hatch, a former social worker, knew the problems older people faced in her community in Durham, N.H. In the pre-Medicare/Medicaid era, she volunteered at the county nursing home and was appalled. At the time, the home warehoused residents in their rooms with space for activities in an old coal-storage room. "It wasn't cruelty," she said, "it was just ignorance."
During the 1970's, as a town selectwoman and a planning board member, Mrs. Hatch helped build low-income senior housing and started a home-health agency for the elderly. By the early 80's, Mrs. Hatch organized members of a church discussion group to look into building a retirement community. In 1982, a friend introduced her to Rosemary Coffin, a longtime community activist in Exeter, who had already formed a group to study the same possibility. Mrs. Coffin was impressed by her mother-in-law's community in San Francisco; residents had full social schedules and excellent health care.
Both women were concerned that clergy members, academics and other people of modest means faced difficult retirements. They had seen older teachers forced to take in students or move in with their children. "We knew a retirement community would be a godsend for people in Durham and Exeter," Mrs. Hatch said.
They gathered at Mrs. Coffin's antique dining-room table and began recruiting allies with backgrounds in business, medicine and law. The eight volunteers incorporated as Life Care Services of New Hampshire, with Mrs. Coffin as president. "We sat around that dining-room table for years before we got anything going," Mrs. Hatch said. "We had no money and no idea how we were going to do this." Their research showed that they would need about 200 apartments at a cost of $40 million.
The women tried to persuade local institutions — the University of New Hampshire, Phillips Exeter Academy and the hospital — to support their project. None could. "People thought it was perfectly crazy," Mrs. Coffin said. "Since none of us had any money, everyone wondered how we were going to do it. At one point, I put $1,000 I'd inherited from my mother in the account just to show we were serious."
After two years as president, Mrs. Coffin suffered severe arthritis and handed the job to Ransom Lynch, a former chairman of the mathematics department at Exeter.
By the late 80's, the group knew it needed professional advice. Mrs. Coffin called Robert Dana Chellis of Chellis Silva Associates, a senior-housing consultant in Wellesley Hills, Mass. Mr. Chellis delivered an inch-thick master plan. "It was very collaborative," said Mr. Chellis, who did some of the work pro bono. "We would meet at the Coffin or the Lynch house and brainstorm about what they wanted. Then they passed the hat, tossed in a few bucks and paid me."
The board tried to interest developers, but it was a hard sell because the group insisted that 90 percent of the entrance fee be refunded to the residents or to their estates. Finally, Retirement Living Services in Hartford agreed to develop the community. It was the company's first project.
"RiverWoods was on-the-job training for us," said Avery Rockefeller III, a co-founder of Retirement Living Services. "Plus, we were intrigued by this group of people who studied for years on their own, and had raised $5,000, $25 at a time."
To raise $3 million in seed money, the company contributed money and deferred its fees for two and a half years, as did the architects and others. Venture capitalists provided the rest of the cash.
The company took the risk because of Exeter's name, its underused location and the state's lack of income tax — all draws for other New Englanders. The RiverWoods board members were also natural recruiters with Ivy League educations or connections to the university and the boarding school. The developers recouped their investment when the state issued tax-exempt bonds, raising $40 million for construction.
FROM the beginning, the founders insisted that the community be for people with moderate incomes. "We were all worried that we wouldn't have enough money to move in," Mrs. Coffin said.
The fees are designed for a retired schoolteacher with a good pension and a house to sell. The entrance fee is $133,000 to $400,000, depending on the apartment size. Monthly fees are $1,400 to $3,500. For a second person, the entrance charge is $18,750, with a monthly fee of $891. In return, residents are guaranteed care, from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing, with minimal additional fees if extra care is needed.
Even though the developers handled the knotty financial, marketing and regulatory details, Mrs. Coffin and Mrs. Hatch continued to be involved. More board members were recruited, and the group found 83 acres of farmland a few miles west of Exeter on which to build. Retirement Living Services bought the land in 1990.
In December 1992, after 10 years of work on the project, Mrs. Hatch, Mrs. Coffin and Mr. Lynch put on hard hats, picked up shovels and broke ground for RiverWoods.
Residents donated antiques, Chinese porcelain, even cuttings from their perennial gardens. "At one point, I just shuddered when I opened yet another letter that read, I would like to donate my piano for the music room," she said. "We had 16 of them."
By 1994, the development was built, featuring 201 independent-living, 20 assisted-living apartments and 39 skilled-nursing beds. With a lengthy waiting list, RiverWoods is planning new accommodations.
The development has fulfilled its mission in other ways as well. In 1998, Mrs. Hatch's husband, John, a noted New Hampshire artist, became sick and died. "It was so gratifying to be with him any time day or night, summer and winter," she said.
"There's a certain vitality to living in a close-knit community during good times, as well as comfort through the hard times."