bennie chaplin, 92, has lived at the mayflower in lexington for two years.
By Faith Isbell, Maya Lora and Kathryn Young
Jeffrey Holt can’t get to his local grocery store in Buena Vista. The 67-year-old man lost his right leg to cancer five years ago. Since then, he’s had to rely on an electric scooter to get around.
Meg Stackpole, 75, a native New Yorker, always wanted to live at Lexington’s branch of Kendal, a company that runs upscale retirement communities in the Northeast.
Brenda Spillers, 56, who grew up in Fairfield, lived in Richmond for 30 years and hated almost every minute of it. She couldn’t wait to get back home. She bought a six-acre farm in Rockbridge County 14 years ago.
Each of their experiences reveals the pros and cons of retiring in rural areas across the nation. Retirees face challenges in finding quality health care. They struggle to go where they want on their own. And they are limited in where they can live by their physical needs and what they can afford.
In Rockbridge County, there are tensions between retirees who have money and those who don’t. It plays out in where they live and how they live. There’s also conflict between retirees who grew up in the county and those who came from big cities searching for peace and quiet.
Nationally, there’s concern about baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, who are retiring but haven’t saved enough and don’t have the money to take care of themselves.
“We were never going to get old,” said Jeri Schaff, executive director of the Valley Program for Aging Services in Waynesboro. “We did not plan very well for the future. We lived in the moment.”
Nearly 30 percent of residents in the county are over 65, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 34 percent.
As hard as it is for Holt to get around on a scooter, he doesn’t want to leave. “It’s just that’s the way it is,” he said.
“We were never going to get old.”
— Jeri schaff, executive director of valley program for aging services
Handle with Care
In Rockbridge County, there aren’t enough doctors to provide quality care for retirees in the area.
Dr. James Crews, 66, said that’s partly because rural areas struggle to attract young primary physicians. He said the doctor shortage primarily affects the senior community.
“We’ve added more orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine docs than we have primary care,” he said.
Crews practiced internal medicine until he retired in January 2019. He said more doctors his age will also retire soon. He said the area needs at least three more primary care doctors to meet the needs of the local population.
Retired Dr. James Crews still administers stress tests at the local hospital.
He said there also are bed shortages in the region, which can become a problem for older patients who are vulnerable to heart failure. He said seniors who need heart catheterization or complicated surgery might not find a hospital bed in Charlottesville or Roanoke.
“The elderly population is expanding, and hospitals are not,” Crews said.
Across all Carilion Clinic locations, there are only 1,026 beds for the approximately 1 million people the system serves.
Lin Koch, 71, has lived alone on 30 acres in Fairfield since her husband died 26 years ago.
The former physical education teacher used to see Dr. Thomas Peck, a local physician who recently retired. Koch said Carilion Clinic, which owns Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington, recently closed the office in Fairfield where Peck worked.
Koch said she now drives about 27 miles to Augusta Health to see a nurse practitioner who worked with Peck.
Coco Meacham, 78, a retired civil rights lawyer who practiced in Boston, went all the way back to New England Baptist Hospital to get a hip replacement two and a half years ago. She said her husband has excellent health care coverage because he was in the military. But even he struggles to find a doctor.
Crews said retirees cannot always get the treatment they need because Medicare, the federal government-provided health insurance for people over 65, doesn’t cover everything. Medicine, for example, would only be covered under certain supplemental policies, which cost extra.
The retired doctor said he knows of seniors who have rationed their prescriptions and put themselves in danger. He said they must choose between eating and paying a mortgage over their health care.
“It’s just outrageous what you have to pay for some of these [medications],” Crews said.
Residents at Kendal of Lexington, a high-end retirement community, can sign up for health care for the rest of their lives by paying a one-time entry fee of up to $698,000 for a 2,000-square foot, two bedroom cottage with a garage and ongoing monthly fees, which also covers a residence, services and amenities. The monthly fees for that cottage would be $6,445.
Stackpole, the native New Yorker, and her husband, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, moved into one of Kendal’s 1,500-square-foot cottages in July 2016.
When her husband, Chris, fell and broke his hip in 2017, he moved across campus into the Borden Health Center, Kendal’s skilled nursing care facility, at no additional cost. She stayed behind in their cottage with her cat, Severus Snape, named after a character in the Harry Potter books.
Meg Stackpole works in the garden outside her Kendal cottage.
“I can go in and out during the day and still have a life,” said Stackpole, a former children’s librarian who likes to garden, read, play bridge and audit classes at Washington and Lee University.
Stackpole said she doesn’t know how much it costs for her and her husband to live at Kendal but estimates that it is at least several hundred thousand dollars.
“With Chris in the nursing [facility], it ends up being cheaper than if we were still living in our old home, and I was paying for him in a separate nursing facility,” she said.
From Here to There
Holt, who spent 30 years as a horseshoer, has used an electric scooter for five years.
He can’t use the sidewalks in downtown Buena Vista because they are cracked or crumbling and lack cutouts and ramps for wheelchair users in some places. Even when he can ride on the sidewalk, he can’t get inside many stores because they don’t have ramps.
Jeffrey Holt uses an electric scooter. he can’t navigate buena vista in a wheelchair.
Holt said the trip to the local Food Lion is too dangerous for him. It is over a mile away from his house, and the hill leading up to the store is too steep for him to attempt in his electric scooter. There is no sidewalk, and riding on the shoulder of the road is out of the question, he said.
He said he would use public transportation if it weren’t so expensive. It would cost him nearly $30 for a round trip to the Food Lion—plus what he’d pay for groceries.
Instead, Holt does all of his shopping at the nearby Family Dollar, even though the store is small, and its shelves are so high that he can’t grab his favorite cereal without help.
“The food’s terrible,” he said. “You can’t buy a fresh salad. At the dollar store, you can’t buy a chunk of meat to barbecue. Have you ever tried to barbecue a whole package of bologna? You got to stick toothpicks through it to hold it together. That’s all you got if you want to barbecue.”
Holt often can’t go out to eat at a restaurant either, but he can get food delivered.
Buena Vista is a challenging city for disabled residents to navigate.
He doesn’t qualify for Meals on Wheels or the senior box program offered by the Rockbridge Area Relief Association, a resource for seniors who can’t get to a grocery store or afford food. Holt’s wife, who is teaching in Alaska, makes nearly $74,000 a year. He said her income disqualifies him from receiving assistance.
The nonprofit organization delivers boxes of food to 100 low-income seniors in Rockbridge County who can’t make the trip to the food pantry. The program started in September through a partnership with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and makes deliveries once a month.
“So, I’m just on my own,” Holt said. “I just take care of it myself.”
Gail Newell, 60, survived a near-fatal car accident when a drunk driver ran her off the road in January 2000. She now uses an electric wheelchair and lives in a first-floor apartment at The Village at Rockbridge, outside of Lexington. But she has her sister, Deedee Hostetter, to take care of her.
Deedee Hostetter helps her sister, Gail Newell, with her hair.
Newell serves on the Lexington Disabilities Services Board and is an activist for the disabled community.
“And I think the problem is people think that when you say a person’s disabled, it’s like you want to diss them in that first part,” she said. “But it’s not true. We want to be abled, you know, … we want to be included. We don’t want to be discluded.”
Newell said she feels like an outsider.
“People with disabilities don’t need to be intimidated or made to feel that way,” she said. “It’s not necessary. You know, you feel bad as it is already.”
If Newell wants to get out of the house, she relies on Rockbridge Area Transportation System (RATS) and the Maury River Express. Residents at Kendal and The Mayflower have private buses at their disposal.
Newell doesn’t like public transportation. “I have come home physically sick from riding the bus,” she said.
Home Sweet Home
Newell said she wishes she could live in downtown Lexington but can’t find affordable housing that suits her needs. She applied for a Habitat for Humanity home but was turned down because she can’t afford the monthly payments. Her monthly Social Security disability check is about $1,000.
Medicare doesn’t cover independent living or assisted living, which means retirees have their own spaces but receive assistance from nurses and staff. At Kendal, that means residents must cover the costs.
But retirees often run the risk of outliving their assets.
Charlotte Sibold, health services administrator at Kendal, said the retirement community does a financial screening to ensure all candidates can afford to live there. If residents run out of assets while living at Kendal, Sibold said, there is a fund to support them.
Medicare covers skilled nursing, round-the-clock expert care, on a limited basis and for a short period of time. Medicaid, a federal health care program for low-income families or individuals, covers long-term skilled nursing.
The Borden Center at Kendal accepts both Medicaid and Medicare. Sibold said the Medicaid population in the skilled nursing center has been as high as 40 to 50 percent of the 60 patients who can live there.
Residents of The Mayflower, a retirement home in Lexington, must pay out-of-pocket because Medicare doesn’t cover such assisted living facilities.
It is smaller than Kendal with room for only 39 residents. Administrator Becky Tacy said rooms at The Mayflower cost $71 to $136 a day, depending on whether a resident is in a single or double room. The basic rate includes medication administration, assistance with bathing and dressing, activities, housekeeping, meals and utilities.
Tacy said she has taken a Social Security check as payment from residents who have lived at The Mayflower for several years and can no longer afford it. But she’s done that only twice.
Loreen Hostetter, 85, moved into The Mayflower in February 2019 but is transferring to Kendal, where the skilled nursing she needs is covered by Medicaid.
Debbie Shade’s mother lives at The Mayflower and has been battling early onset dementia for a decade.
Shade, 56, said The Mayflower is the most affordable option for her mother. But she isn’t happy because she doesn’t think staff keep her mother as active as she should be.
Every Friday, residents of The Mayflower can go on “a bus ride to nowhere.” Tacy said residents can ask the driver to stop whenever and wherever they want to explore.
Tacy said employees can’t force residents to do something they aren’t interested in doing. Residents have rights as if “they were living in their own home,” she said.
“We encourage them,” Tacy said. “Some of our residents, you can encourage them to do it and the encouragement works, and some of them you can’t get them to move.”
Kevin McCusty, 61, a retired lawyer from Richmond, bought a 150-acre farm in Rockbridge Baths 13 months ago. He said he is not interested in living in a retirement home.
“I sort of don’t like the collective mentality and the crowd,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a loner and so being a loner, I’m in my environment out here.”
Kevin McCusty lives on his farm with his donkeys and dog, guinness snout.
McCusty’s farm is near Hogback Mountain, about 10 miles outside of Lexington. His husband, Scott Robertson, still works in Richmond but visits on the weekends.
McCusty said he worries that no one would find him if he got hurt while using power tools, such as chainsaws and a wood chipper.
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Every week, a local bluegrass band, the Pickers, meets up to practice at the Maury River Senior Center.
The senior center in Buena Vista brings seniors in the area together for a number of activities, including quilting, bridge, gardening and seated yoga.
The Senior Center Pickers both practice and perform in Buena Vista.
The center offers a series on “Aging with Confidence,” which are workshops on financial planning, cooking and Medicare.
“You can feel some confidence that you’re not just kind of throwing jello at the wall and seeing whether or not it works,” said Schaff of the Valley Program for Aging Services.
Over at Lexington City Hall, the Stitchin’ Bitches meet Monday evenings to craft quilts and catch up with one another. The group, part of the Rockbridge Pieceworkers Quilt Guild, attracts mostly retired women from all over the county.
The Stitchin’ Bitches also grab lunch and go on outings together.
Marquita Dunn, 62, retired from her job at Washington and Lee’s Café 77 last year and is spending time with her grandchildren. She lives on Massie Street in Lexington with five generations of her family’s women.
“We may have our differences, but at the end of the day, we’re all family,” she said. “We love one another, and that’s just the way it is.”
Meacham, the retired civil rights lawyer, said it is difficult to retire in Rockbridge County for those who are not from the area. She and her husband live on 24 acres just west of Lexington.
“It reminds me of going off to college, and girls are coming from the same town, and they all know each other, and you’ve got to break in,” she said. “And if you don’t have a history, people already have enough friends.”
Spillers, a Fairfield native who worked in human resources in Richmond, doesn’t like retirees who moved from out-of-state.
“They complain that things aren’t at their fingertips,” she said. “They complain that our way of life is backwards. They complain that we’re idiots. It’s all because they want us to assimilate into their culture.”
Although her husband died a year ago, Spillers continues to live in their 4,300-square-foot home by herself, with seven bedrooms and 10 bathrooms.
“I have friends. That’s the whole deal. I have friends. If I need something, somebody always knows somebody else,” she said.
Spillers said when she grew up in Fairfield, she took it for granted, and she didn’t realize how good it was.
“If you want the excitement,” she said, “if you want everything at your fingertips, don’t come here.”