Like many Johnson County residents, Betty McKray came to
Iowa City to go to college, moved away and came back to
retire and enjoy the many amenities of a college town.
"I retired here because it's a great community with so
much culture and activities available to people," McKray
said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for education, culture
and health care."
Jean James works with gallon milk jugs during water
aerobics Friday at Melrose Meadows. Press-Citizen/Jason
McKray, 83, embodies the population of older Americans
that have made Iowa City and Johnson County a retirement
destination and helped boost a reputation that continues
to foster a growing market for elder care. In the last
three or four years, the elder care industry has grown
substantially in Johnson County, said David Purdy, executive
director of Elder Affairs Inc. The agency provides services
to help older adults live in their own home for as long
The industry growth is mirrored across the state and
projections show a senior population boom is soon to come.
But Charity Rowley, 74, a Senior Center commissioner,
questions whether Johnson County services are ready. Iowa
City still is a college town with businesses and retailers
that cater mainly to 20-somethings, she said.
"That's partly because many people have not retired yet,"
Rowley said. "They're waiting for the baby boomers to
retire. I'm a Depression baby, and there were fewer of
Reasons for growth
Dorothy Brown, 78, reaches for a beach ball while
playing catch with Bob Thompson, Carol Thompson, Lida
Sigg and Jean James during water aerobics Friday morning
at Melrose Meadows. Press-Citizen/Jason A. Cook
"A lot of growth at this point has been by professionals
that are bringing their parents here," Purdy said. "New
people come here because they have children here. It's
becoming a destination to grow older (here). People like
the health care, the smaller town setting and social services
offered, that's what is making it a destination."
So is recognition in national media. The Wall Street
Journal described Iowa City as a favorite place to retire
in a 2001 "guide to life after 55" article by Steve Weinberg.
In addition, he AARP ranked Iowa City as the sixth-best
college town in which to retire.
The assisted living industry responded with a 48 percent
growth in the last four years, making it one of the fastest
growing industries in the region. Meanwhile, homebuilders
have increased attention on universal design concepts
specifically for the elderly market, even condominiums
now cater to the retired community by making seasonal
chores obsolete with lawn and snow maintenance crews.
Assisted living centers are designed for people who can
no longer live independently but do not yet need the specialized
care of a nursing home. Seniors ages 60 and older represent
10.3 percent of the Johnson County population, according
to U.S. Census Bureau estimates as of July 1, 2002.
There are 191 assisted living programs in the state and
eight are in Johnson County, according to the Iowa Department
of Inspections and Appeals. Five years ago, there were
50 assisted living facilities statewide with two in Johnson
The facilities employ more than 150 people locally. Average
annual incomes and net wages were not available upon request.
"It wasn't until a few years back that there weren't
any assisted a living facilities in Johnson County," Purdy
said. "I've seen businesses come in the market specifically
geared toward the elderly."
According to a 2004 U.S. Census Bureau report, a large
wave of workers born during the Baby Boom of 1946 to 1964
will leave the work force over the next few decades. The
health care work force will see the largest loss of older
workers in the next five to 10 years.Closeness to family,
health care services that keep them active and cultural
opportunities are reasons seniors gave Judy Hesson for
moving to the area.
About 40 percent to 50 percent of residents at Melrose
Meadows' 22-unit assisted living center come from outside
Johnson County and from out of state, Hesson said. Residents,
whose average age is 83, range from UI alumni to people
who want to retire close to family, she said.
"We have people that never lived in Iowa but because
their children are associated with the larger businesses
in Iowa or maybe with the university they moved here,"
According to UI Alumni Association records, there were
16,770 living alumni in Johnson County as of March. That
is 4,482 more than the combined number living in Linn,
Iowa, Washington, Cedar and Muscatine counties. But the
draw isn't limited to the immediate Iowa City area.
Distance to health care services and maintaining the
small town atmosphere is no longer a problem for elderly
once small towns like Tiffin and North Liberty have developed
closer to Iowa City.
Options breed competition
Lawyer Joe Johnston plans to build a $4 million, 50-unit
elderly living center on five acres of his expansive 20-acre
In North Liberty, Greenwood Manor partners plan to sell
the nursing home license to a non-profit organization,
after building a new nursing home in a proposed Liberty
Medical Center development. The Greenwood Manor home was
built in 1965. The facility, licensed for 87 beds, has
not been full in the last five years, said Jerry Nicholls,
a Greenwood Manor co-owner.Additional expansions are taking
place at existing elder care facilities. The Silvercrest
Legacy Pointe campus in Iowa City added a 24-apartment
building for independent living in July. Additional construction
will continue on the second of three independent living
apartment buildings and the campus may see a nursing care
facility in the future, said Dereck Johnson, executive
All these additional home care options, coupled with
more federal and state funding have made the elder care
industry more competitive in Johnson County, Nicholls
said. He has been in the elder care business for 27 years
and also owns an assisted living facility near Wellman
that was built in 2002.
"To be competitive and be able to offer the kind of services
that the public wants, we have to go to a new building,"
Nicholls said. The new building has a "household concept"
design for 20 nursing home residents to eliminate an institutional
feel, he said.
As the Baby Boomer generation enters the Iowa City landscape,
the elder care industry also will have to respond to new
service demands for recreation and nutrition, Purdy said.
The Johnson County Task Force on Aging already is preparing
for the growing elderly population by conducting a survey
of senior services, he said.
"Baby Boomers will probably have a different idea for
what a meal should be," he said.