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Community housing for senior citizens. New Canaan may set model for other towns

All over the United States, communities are searching for better ways to house their older citizens. Two questions regularly occur: 1. The practical question - how to finance and support a new institution without the costs becoming prohibitive?

2. The less exact but even more important social question - how to write a compact that allows maximum self-reliance, and therefore maximum dignity, for the residents?

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The New Canaan Inn project in New Canaan, Conn., provides innovative answers to both questions, and in doing so, stands as a case history of the new volunteerism that is making itself felt more and more in American communities these days.

New Canaan is a town of just under 20,000, yet the New Canaan Inn was built entirely by contributions from local individuals, organizations, corporations, and foundations -- without government funds. In the past five years $1.5 million of the initial $2 million expenditure has been raised from large and small gifts , ranging from $5 into the thousands of dollars. An ongoing campaign is expected this year to raise the final $500,000.

The concept of the inn as the expression of a caring and concerned community won immediate financial and volunteer support. Busy executives gave hours of their time and professional expertise to the planning and execution of the project. A. Bliss McCaum, chairman of the inn's board of directors, says that when this board and its advisory council really decided to come to grips with the problem of providing suitable housing for many of the town's senior citizens , help and encouragement poured in from every quarter.

''We had learned,'' Mr. McCaum says, ''that New Canaan had only a few moderately priced rental properties in town, and that there was but one privately owned inn that was taking in a small number of elder guests. Consequently, many of our older citizens, who had contributed so much to the town, had had to move elsewhere in their later years. Or they had continued to live alone in their own homes, coping as best they could with problems of safety , loneliness, isolated locations, maintenance of their properties, and meal preparation. Our desire was to provide a conveniently located residence for seniors where they could live comfortably under one roof, but with dignity, privacy, and independence.''

The name ''The New Canaan Inn'' was selected by its founders to convey the idea of a special residence for healthy older people who wanted to be free to come and go as they wished but who no longer wanted to maintain individual homes. A well-appointed inn, they felt, could provide a sense of security, as well as three good meals a day and the easy companionship found in the shared spaces of dining room, library, living room, and recreational areas. Nothing in its title, or general aspect, was to suggest ''old folks home'' or ''nursing home.''

Each resident, it is pointed out, is reasonably well, able to look after daily needs, and free to be as mobile as he or she wishes. The inn has no health-care facilities.

To be accepted, an inn resident must be at least 62 and be a resident of New Canaan or connected with a resident's family. There is no entrance fee, nor must a resident commit any portion of his estate to the inn. Each resident simply pays the current monthly charge, which is now $900 per person. This includes housing, all meals, and maid service. Eventually, when the mortgage is retired and inflation subsides, it is hoped this charge can be reduced to $750 per month , which was the original plan. An assistance fund exists to help those who may not be able to afford the full monthly fee.

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''The inn was established,'' board president Harlan E. Anderson explains, ''as a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation, to operate on a break-even basis. Tenants are charged a pro-rated share of ongoing operating expenses. We aim to run the inn on a sound business basis, but not to make money with it.''

Each resident has a large room with private bathroom, closet, small refrigerator, private telephone, and individual controls for air conditioning and heating. Each is encouraged, too, to bring familiar furnishings from homes they are leaving. Six two-room units are arranged especially for couples. All residents are encouraged, as well, to invite guests to meals, for which they pay a modest cost.

The innkeeper, Mrs. Joanne Stark, lives on the premises with her husband and heads an administrative support staff that is on duty 24 hours a day.

The New Canaan Inn incorporates the sort of thoughtful policies that tend to develop when a community gets deeply involved.

Those most deeply involved, the residents themselves, describe the project in terms of their own experience.

Dolly Stevens, who was librarian in the New Canaan library for 40 years and knows nearly everyone in town, says she likes the inn because it keeps her in the heart of the community and in the flow of events.

Charles Miller still contributes comic sketches to the local newspaper each week. He says he is glad both for his work and for the inn. After his wife passed on over a year ago, the house they had shared for 31 years seemed empty and lonely. Living at the inn is far different, he concedes, ''but I was ready for the change. I like the sociability and activities of the inn. Besides, I can help out with things around the place and I like that, too. And it's nice to be able to invite people in for lunch or dinner at any time.''

Mrs. Helen Shapiro, who stopped driving three years ago when she was 85, enjoys the 15-minute walk every day down to the post office and shopping area. Mrs. Shapiro admits that ''nothing is perfect. There are always a few complaints and complainers, and the food isn't always what I might choose for myself if I were at home. But the inn is great for me right now. I've found two or three good new friends with whom I feel compatible, and I like the staff, so I can't find fault.''

Mrs. Irene Hardy, 92, who came from her own apartment in Washington, D.C., to be near her son and daughter, sums up: ''It seems to me that every person and club and church in New Canaan takes such pride and interest in lthe inn. Everyone tries to help us feel more comfortable and happy here.''

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