Empty store reborn as a time machine for the ‘silver tsunami’ of Baby Boomer retirees

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The vintage Chevy at Town Square in Perry Hall. Photo by Ed Gunts.

The first thing visitors see at the former Rite Aid is a turquoise 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan, parked next to a Sinclair gas pump with vintage Dino the dinosaur graphics.

All traces of the Perry Hall store’s shelves and pharmacy counter are gone. In their place is a simulated streetscape right out of small-town America, with a series of storefronts that hark back to the walkable shopping districts where people bought goods before big box stores (and Amazon) came along.

Visitors can pick up a Life magazine or Saturday Evening Post from the corner newsstand. Take in a ’50s movie at the town cinema. Select songs from a jukebox in the diner, or play records on an old Victrola.

This time machine of sorts is the central feature of Town Square, an 11,000-square-foot daytime activity center tailored for seniors, including those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It contains areas for games, exercise, dining and socializing, like other eldercare centers. What makes it so unusual is that everything inside the building is designed to bring back memories of the post–World War II era.

The retro setting is part of an effort to transport visitors back to the ’50s and ’60s, when today’s seniors and near-seniors grew up, allowing them to spend a few hours a day outside their home in a social setting with other seniors.

The theme is especially aimed at people who are experiencing memory loss, by exposing them to places and objects that may trigger memories from when they were younger. But the immersive environment is also meant to be attractive to anyone who was alive when America first had jukeboxes or Look magazines, even if memory loss isn’t a concern.

The creator of this Disney-esque setting is Senior Helpers, a Towson-based provider of in-home senior care. Senior Helpers rented the building on Belair Road and spent more than $1.3 million over the past several months to convert it to a for-profit senior care center.

According to Peter Ross, who is both CEO and co-founder of Senior Helpers, Town Square is meant to be a “game changer” for the growing number of Americans who are 62 or older and looking for ways to avoid isolation.

“Town Square represents an important step forward in the future of senior care in this country,” he said. “It offers all seniors a location to gather, socialize and find a sense of belonging.”

The Perry Hall center, which is corporately owned and operated, is the first of many Town Squares the company plans to open around the country. Many of the others will be franchise operations in former big box stores like the former Rite Aid.

Perry Hall’s Town Square will be open five days a week and is designed to serve up to 100 or so participants a day. The idea is that guests will be able to visit one or more times a week for half-day or full-day sessions. The rate will be about $90 for a full day, and memberships will be available for repeat visitors.

In remarks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, Ross said a strong need exists for such centers because people want to remain active for as long as they can.

He cited projections that indicate one in five people in the U.S. will be over 65 by 2030–a “silver tsunami” that means there will be more need for senior care centers in the future. “For the first time ever, there’s more people over 65 in this country than under 5,” he said.

Ross noted that 96 percent of all seniors say they want to stay in their own home as long as possible, rather than move to a nursing home or some other institutional setting, according to the AARP.

“But not everybody can afford home care on a one-on-one basis,” he said. “So what’s needed in this country is more group care options.”

Ross said the reason most seniors go to a group facility now is that family members or other caregivers make them go. He wanted to create a place that offers so much to do and is so much fun that seniors will look forward to going.

“We want people to want to be there, and we want people to not want to leave,” he said. “We think seniors can still learn. We think seniors can get better. We want them to have purpose when they come in.”

Town Square is designed to be an interactive “town” with 13 themed storefronts or experiences grouped around a central square. By visiting different areas of Town Square, guests will be able to take part in classes, watch a movie, play pool, have a meal and socialize.

Settings include a City Hall, game room, art studio, garden shop and private residence. The library has a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The movie theater’s walls are lined with black-and-white photos of ’50s stars such as Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. Posters promote movies like “Father of the Bride” with Spencer Tracy and “The Bellboy” with Jerry Lewis. The theater’s marquee bears a message: “Welcome to Town Square Perry Hall Where We Spark Memories.”

One storefront is a health club that will be used for physical and occupational therapy and exercise classes. The town learning center will be a classroom for computer training and other subjects. Although the center has a retro theme, it also has internet access and other 21st-century technology.

The design is based on a behavioral science approach known as reminiscence therapy, which uses prompts such as movies, music, photographs, colors, patterns and activities to stimulate long-term memories.

While Perry Hall’s Town Square is designed with features for people showing signs of cognitive impairment, Ross stressed it’s intended to be a place for all seniors, even if they’re simply experiencing the normal effects of aging.

“Seniors today are dealing with isolation and loneliness, not just Alzheimer’s and dementia,” he said.

Town Square officials said they’re hiring a staff for the center, and that it likely will open for business in early November.

A barbershop quartet performs at the ribbon-cutting for Town Square. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting drew elected officials, community and business leaders, health care professionals, educators and potential franchisees, among others. A barbershop quartet, part of the Heart of Maryland Chorus, sang outside the center’s library.

More than a few speakers took note of the theme, saying walking around the interior was like being on a movie set.

“People are going to be just overwhelmed and excited that there is something like this for moms and dads and grandparents that can come and have a great time,” said State Sen. Johnny Ray Salling.

Rona Kramer, secretary of the Maryland Department of Aging, said adults aged 62 and older currently make up 20.6 percent of Maryland’s population, and the percentage is expected to rise to 26.6 percent in 10 years. She said there are more seniors in Maryland than children in all of the state’s school systems combined.

“This is a tremendous example of innovation, and innovation and creativity are what we need right now given the demographics that we’re dealing with.”

Dana Bradley, dean of the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said Town Square would be a good place for students to conduct research, to get data on how well reminiscence therapy works. And it could also offer a good source for ideas to show what people can do in their own homes to trigger memories, because it’s eminently customizable.

“This is really innovative,” she said. “It really puts Baltimore County on the map. We’re doing so many things that are dementia-friendly, and I think this is a beacon for investors who want to put money and resources into best practices. You’ve got a lot of best practices under one roof that could be replicated.”

No one wants to go into a health care facility where they are being told they’re “sick, ill and frail,” she said. “They just want to be people, with their friends. And here, they’re going to be who they are, and hopefully they’re going to have a community.”

Ross said the idea for Perry Hall’s Town Square came from George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers Inc., which operates a ’50s-themed adult care center called Glenner Town Square in Chula Vista, California. That facility is a nonprofit operation inside a converted warehouse in an industrial area, designed to employ reminiscence therapy approaches to care for visitors with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Senior Helpers worked with Glenner to develop the Maryland version. Its layout bears a strong resemblance to the one in California, down to the presence of a vintage car near the entrance (Glenner’s center has a 1950s Thunderbird).

Senior Helpers altered the concept to serve all seniors, and located the first one in a former store on a busy road rather than a warehouse.

Ross and Senior Helpers vice president of franchise development Greg White said it has been relatively easy to identify big box stores to recycle because so many companies have closed locations in recent years.

Areas getting Town Square franchises include Las Vegas, Louisville, St. Louis, Austin, Texas; Sarasota, Florida, and two each in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Ross said he’d like to see several hundred around the country, including another in Baltimore County.

“Senior Helpers has 320 locations in 43 states,” he said. “We think Town Square can have just as many… We want to help as many people as we possibly can.”

Ed Gunts

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  1. As a former Baltimorean , I am very proud of what you all are doing. I moved to Greenville, S.C.6 yrs ago to live in a facility on the campus of Furman U. where there is an Oscher program ( called OLLIE here) that gives many courses (no tests or exams) as well as those of us who live at THE WOODLANDS AT FURMAN a retirement facility with many activities of its own in addition. Not quite what you’re doing but close!!

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