November 24. 2013 4:43PM

Comfort, companionship, compassion in continuing care at Riverwoods retirement facility in Exeter

Union Leader Correspondent

EXETER — It has been 20 years since the vision of a handful of area residents became the reality that is RiverWoods Continuing Care Retirement Community.

The vision was to provide a dignified way for people to retire, before they became inactive, and to provide continuing care through the end of their lives without burgeoning costs as their needs enhanced.

"There was a need locally, and that need was based on providing people a better way to be 75," RiverWoods Executive Director Justine Vogel said.

At the time, there were few such communities in the country, and even fewer in New England.

A CCRC provides a continuum of independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing within the same facility.

Around the time of RiverWoods construction in 1994, Rivermede was built in Peterborough, Kendall was constructed in Hanover a few years earlier and Wake Robin opened in Vermont.

"What you see today is not much has changed in terms of additional communities being built," Vogel said.

But RiverWoods has expanded twice, adding the Ridge campus in 2004 and the Boulders campus in 2010.

The other CCRCs in New Hampshire are also expanding.

"What is starting to happen is people are aging. Baby boomers are aging into our marketplace, and there is a real belief that doing this right from the start is really helpful," Vogel said.

What is a CCRC?

The one thing that has not changed is the lack of understanding about what a CCRC is.

"People think of a CCRC, and think nursing home and assisted living. While we have that, it is far more inclusive than that," Vogel said.

Residents at RiverWoods are involved in every aspect of management and event planning. There are more than 40 resident committees, a resident advisory board and a wide range of group activities offered and arranged by the residents themselves.

The campuses are made up of writers, former executives, university professors, and all sorts of active elders not ready to give up on living active and engaging lives.

"The first step in the planning is just to understand all of your options. What happens is you don't really want to think about getting older. People think of getting older as a loss, or any move out of their single-family home as a loss … When people think of it as moving to something instead of from something, they do really great work," Vogel said.

RiverWoods is a Type A CCRCC, meaning everything a person might have to deal with in terms of financial costs for any additional care the rest of their lives is covered by the same monthly fees they have paid all along.

The average age of residents moving into RiverWoods is late 70s, and nearly 100 percent of residents enter as independent living residents.

Entry fees range from $164,000 to $670,000, and are 90 percent refundable, meaning when a resident departs, 90 percent of that fee is returned to the resident's children or estate. Monthly fees range from $2,000 to $6,000 and are tax-deductible up to 40 percent as a pre-paid medical expense.

"There are a lot of people who think they can't afford it who really can," Vogel said.

There are just under 400 independent living units at RiverWoods, including independent apartments and cottages. There are 75 assisted living apartments and about 75 skilled nursing beds, which are all private rooms. In total, the campuses serve about 615 residents over the course of the three levels of care.

Founding RiverWoods

Frank Gutmann is a current resident of RiverWoods and one of the original group members who developed the idea.

Rosemary Coffin and her husband lived in a dorm at the Phillips Exeter Academy campus with Gutmann and his wife. Gutmann and Mr. Coffin both taught at the private school for many years.

Coffin started thinking about what a retirement community should look like based on her experience with her mother-in-law's experience in such a community.

Around the same time, Maryanna Hatch in Durham, wife of artist and university professor John Hatch, was having similar thoughts.

In the early 1980s, the two women were brought together, and with a small group of friends that included Gutmann and his wife, Lois, started having meetings and formed an organization to develop the idea.

"We didn't know a lot, and we knew we didn't," Gutmann said.

Gutmann said the founding members wanted to create a retirement community where seniors would feel confident in their surroundings and the support they would receive. Health care had to be a component as did a sense of community.

"But one thing we did not want to do was be developers," Gutmann said.

So by 1987 they started looking for partners. They began talking with Kendall, which was developing a community in Hanover, but the two sides could not reach agreement on the issue of returning deposit fees. The founding residents were adamant that a good chunk of the money be returned to a resident's children or estate when the person departed, but Kendall would not buy in to that idea.

Eventually, the idea was saved by three principals led by Avery Rockefeller, who finally developed the property.

Gutmann and his wife were not old enough to enter when RiverWoods opened, but said they stayed involved because they liked the concept.

"We believe that this was a worthwhile project for the community and worth putting some time and energy into. It's that simple," Gutmann said.

Resident testimonials

Katherine Southworth, 77, first learned of RiverWoods in the 1980s from original members. In 2006, she realized she and her husband, Robert, would soon be in need of help, and had lunch with friends at RiverWoods.

"I said to Robert, 'it might be a good idea if we go to RiverWoods.' 'Why would that be a good idea?' he said," Southworth recalled.

Robert died a year ago at the age of 95 after many happy years at RiverWoods with his wife and many friends.

Southworth said as her husband's health continued to fail and he moved through the continuum, it was nice to be able to just travel down the hall to visit with each other and have meals together.

She said it is also a collaborative process deciding when it is appropriate for someone to move to the next level of care.

Dick Alpin, 84, came to RiverWoods with his wife, JoAnne from Ithaca, N.Y., almost 17 years ago. Alpin had retired from Cornell University, and his wife was facing health problems, so he wanted to do something while they still could, he said.

There was a continuing care community near them in New York, but they preferred RiverWoods for a variety of reasons.

His wife was not enthusiastic about the move to a CCRC, but after awhile, it came to be home.

"She died after eight years, and it was a wonderful place to be," Alpin said.

Alpin is also a member of one of the community's great love stories. Following his wife's passing, he met a new resident and the two fell in love, marrying on the campus with nearly 300 fellow residents in attendance.

Conrad Trulson, 80, and his wife were on vacation in Maine with another couple who had paid a visit to RiverWoods and were thinking about moving in.

At the time, neither Trulson or his wife were considering leaving their home, but his wife loved the campus, and the idea of no longer having to cook. Trulson was not necessarily upset about the prospect of not having to shovel in the winter either.

Trulson and his family had moved many, many times because of his work, so moving again, for a final time, was not necessarily a difficult decision.

The couple moved into the Boulders three years ago from Hopkinton as one of the first residents in the newest campus.

Trulson said his wife is on a variety of committees, and he serves as the chairman of the resident council when not enjoying the half-dozen golf courses in the immediate area.

They also get out to a family home in New Castle regularly for family events.

A gift to your children

About 42 percent of RiverWoods residents are from New Hampshire, and the rest come from a smattering of other states as far west as Arizona.

"A lot of those people have ties here. They have kids here, grew up here, summered here … ," Alpin said.

He said he has never had so many friends as he has made at RiverWoods. Previously his friends were largely focused around his work and the university, but now his group is broader, more diverse, and there are more of them.

He said the decision has also been a good one for his children."It is the biggest gift you can give your children. If you move in here, you know you are going to be taken care of and not going to become a burden to them," Alpin said.