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Vantage Point

Vantage Point: Competing for St. Helena’s senior citizens

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Several times this summer Molly’s Angels, the senior assistance group, has had a table at our Farmers' Market. I thought that’s great, they’re promoting their services. Alas, this didn’t explain their presence. Instead, Molly’s Angels has a problem: their roster of Upvalley volunteers was decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They were here to try to recruit new volunteers so they can rebuild their services of medical rides and other forms of help.

The difficulties of Molly’s Angels are just one indicator of the problems impacting our aging friends and neighbors in St. Helena. A multi-generational town is an interesting one. We shouldn’t be pleased with losing our senior citizens (of whom I’m one) to luxury living facilities south.

This is problem that will only grow into a crisis. While it’s unclear how much our city government can do to help, the subject needs to receive the priority attention it currently isn’t getting. The context is that everyone I know over 60 is thinking about where to spend their senior years.

A retired vintner tells me that he and his wife are constantly talking about their options. Their conclusion is that at some point they will vacate their long-term home and move to a senior community. Another friend, a retired attorney, firmly states that he and his wife are determined to age in place in their St. Helena home. So, hopes and plans are all over the place.

I decided to visit and investigate a couple of different luxury senior living options down valley that are actively trying to recruit St. Helenans — The Meadows and Watermark. These are both RCFEs, state-supervised “Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly,” which offer the services of assisted living and memory care in addition to independent living. The Meadows offers a further level of “continuing care” which includes skilled nursing.

The Meadows sits at the end of Jefferson Street below Napa. It is a huge campus, with separate units for independent living, assisted living, and advanced care. What continuing care means is that once you buy in, they will take care of you whatever your medical needs.

For a one-bedroom independent living apartment, the monthly fee ranges up to $5,000, on top of an entrance fee above $700,000. What’s interesting about their economic model is that this entrance fee is 85% refundable upon departure (vertical or horizontal). Their marketing scheme is that potential members commit, then get a couple of months to sell their current home (the proceeds then pay for the entrance fee).

The Meadows has an impressive new and large indoor L-shaped salt water pool near the gym. Alas, when I visited, no members were using the gym or the pool. I could see why St. Helenans, active now but concerned about future physical decline, could choose to move to The Meadows.

Watermark, on Soscol, is the new luxury option. Opened just two years ago, in the pandemic, it’s still building up its membership, which is currently 50% filled. Situated next to Justin-Siena High School, it has no pool but does have two pickleball courts (not in use while I was there) in addition to a gym. Similar to The Meadows, Watermark has several contiguous restaurants, wine permitted (Watermark has a small corkage fee). Like The Meadows, members receive a monthly dollar credit that can be applied to restaurant bills.

At both, food prices are lower than at Napa restaurants; they provide modest portions.

Watermark’s financial model is different: a $60,000 nonrefundable entrance fee. For a one-bedroom apartment, monthly fees start under $5,000. It offers both assisted living and memory care, but not hospital-level advanced nursing.

The Meadows has nonprofit ownership; besides building its new pool complex, it’s putting earnings into an ongoing renovations. Watermark is part of a for-profit corporation; I don’t know if that’s a meaningful distinction. It wants to develop activities with students and faculty at Justin-Siena, which would add to its attraction for seniors.

My mother had been a hospital administrator and knew the vagaries of medical needs for seniors. She chose to leave her wonderful apartment in Portland and move into an independent living apartment in a nearby continuing care community. She much too soon had to transition into assisted living, where she comfortably lived out her remaining life.

She was well-treated at this facility. But, soon after she moved there, I asked her how it was going. She said there was one problem: “It’s filled with old people!” I diplomatically pointed out to her that was the point.

I was impressed with both The Meadows and Watermark. The quality of life they offer is high. But when I returned to St. Helena after visiting them, I would pour myself a glass of Champagne and remember the concluding line of "The Wizard of Oz": “There’s no place like home.”

Here is where I want to stay. Whether I’ll be able to do so is uncertain. That may partly depend on whether St. Helena’s broader community works to retain our seniors. And perhaps whether Molly’s Angels can find more drivers.

Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business.

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