Part Retirement, Part Resort The Gardens of Wilbraham Changes the Shape of Independent Living

The Gardens of Wilbraham is celebrating its first year in business with some heavy hitters — bulldozers and backhoes, to be exact.

Less than a year after its first resident moved into the independent living community on Boston Road, The Gardens began breaking ground on the next phase of development at the property, which will add more homes to its acreage and a number of new amenities, among them a clay tennis court and a putting green.

All of the construction is geared toward the facility’s mission as a ‘continuing care retirement community’ (CCRC), the first to be created and managed by Athena Communities of Southington, Conn.

Athena owns 22 nursing homes, and only recently moved into the independent living market. The company also owns the American Inn in Southwick, and the two properties share a marketing agent — Galanek Associates of Southwick.

The Gardens, however, represents Athena’s only ‘service-enhanced’ property, owned in part by Athena and also by Saloomey Construction of Otis, Mass. The 70-acre parcel is being developed by Athena and Saloomey Construction, as well as by Valley Planning of East Longmeadow.

The complex is now entering phase two (of four) in its construction, which will add 58 homes to its grounds.

Taking Root

The Gardens’ general manager, Joseph DellaPuca, said the complex will consist of 240 homes when construction is completed, and sales have already been robust; about 88{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the Gardens’ units have been sold, and its first resident moved in last July. Currently, 25 homes are occupied.

The units themselves vary in size from approximately 1,250 square feet to 2,500 square feet, and resemble condominiums, with the exception that each unit has been built as a free-standing structure, with about a two-inch buffer for sound. Each home, or cottage, is constructed with one or two bedrooms, as well as an attached one- or two-car garage, and the option for a second-floor loft.

All of the units also feature high ceilings, full basements, and a number of design features aimed at ‘aging in place.’ Pass-throughs, for instance — window-sized openings built into the walls separating one room from another — make transporting meals from the kitchen to the dining room easier. All of the homes’ doorways are wide enough to accommodate walkers, and instead of steps to the enclosed garage, slightly sloped concrete has been poured for added safety.

DellaPuca has served in management roles in a wide variety of retirement communities and independent living settings in Connecticut, and said he’s excited about the work being done at the Gardens. He said he segued from a career in managed care into elder care, and as the industry changes and Baby Boomers age, innovative design, programming, and construction are more important to independent and assisted living communities than ever before.

“The Baby Boomers kick-started this movement,” he said, “but the elders of today are taking advantage of it, and it will also be there for us when we reach the age at which we want to make life simpler, and safer.”

DellaPuca said the median age of the Gardens’ residents is 62, he said; however, many are older, and many plan to make this their primary residence for the rest of their lives.

Keeping that in mind, the complex was planned to include several architectural features like those high ceilings and pass-throughs to give the units a luxurious look and feel, while still taking into account the particular health-related needs of aging residents.

“Every home has a very customized look,” he said. “Each home is also fully insulated to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and they’re very energy-efficient.”

The units range in price from $280,000 to $350,000, and residents choose their own décor, from carpeting to cabinets to countertops, from selections provided and installed by the Gardens team.

Amenities are covered by a monthly fee — about $400 — and include household services such as painting and repair as well as a long list of activities and offerings in the complexes’ central ‘clubhouse’ and information center.

The clubhouse is the complexes’ central hub, spanning 12,000 square feet. It includes an outdoor pool, patio, and enclosed sunroom, a full-service kitchen, a fitness center, a library, and a great room that can be used for functions by residents or the community.

An executive chef is on staff to provide meals as well as cooking classes on occasion, and spa meals are provided by the pool during warm months, in addition to cabana service for drinks, snacks, towels, and the like.

In keeping with the Gardens’ continuing care residency model, a wellness center is also on the premises, and new residents are ‘profiled’ when they arrive to get a good picture of their health and any chronic issues they may have.

Beyond that, the wellness center also provides massages, facials, and podiatry services, and a trainer is available in the fitness center, working with residents to meet their fitness goals as well as provide tutelage in movements that can strengthen hip and joint health — two of the most prevalent issues facing aging populations that can lead to injury and loss of mobility.

In their homes, residents can take advantage of 24-hour security, an on-site taxi service, and a menu of emergency services, such as pull cords located in various rooms throughout the house, which can be used in the event of a fall or another emergency.

Residents also check in with staff every morning by pressing a large, yellow button on their phones, designed to ensure that all is well within each unit. Each morning, if the button is not pressed by 10 a.m., a staff member makes a visit immediately.

DellaPuca said the complex promotes active lifestyles, and to that end offers a number of personal enrichment trips and classes.

These include college courses offered in conjunction with UMass Amherst, Elms College, Western New England College, and Baypath College. Theater trips to Boston, Springfield, Hartford, and New York City are offered, and the Gardens already has active travel and dining clubs that take residents to locales as close as one town over and as far away as Alaska or Paris.

Business is Blooming

“Everything we offer is geared toward stress-free living,” said DellaPuca. “We don’t want our residents to worry about anything, and to feel comfortable aging in place.”

Standing in a completed unit, DellaPuca pointed out of a window toward a clearing that will soon hold a row of new homes, the clay tennis court, and the putting green for use by residents and their visitors.

“I’m really enjoying this,” he said of his new post at the Gardens. “Getting well, enjoying life, and having all of the necessary services right at home — what a great concept.”

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