The New Old-balcony
Image: Daniel Root

Resident Mary Ellen Higgins at the Heights. Terwilliger’s new 48-unit luxury wing.

Bob McFarlane chairs the board. With his cherubic mug, he’s the star of Terwilliger’s commercial literature and the facility’s de facto poster boy. The first time I meet him he’s drinking wine, eating a fig-and-goat-cheese tart, and smoothly schmoozing at an open-house luncheon in the tapas bar. He used to be a thoracic surgeon and for a time was chief of surgery at Kaiser Permanente. This afternoon, his sunburned cheeks glow above his white beard, the sign of a long weekend spent sailing on Puget Sound.

He can’t talk for long, though. Just a brief hover and a handshake and it’s back to recruiting. After all, at these prices, the units in the Heights aren’t going to fill themselves. With a wink he says, “Maybe we’ll see you around someday.”

Yeah. And maybe I should start saving. Right now.

The population of Multnomah County residents age 60 and older was just under 95,000 in 2000, according to US Census figures. By 2010, that number is expected to swell to about 104,000, according to projections by the Population Research Center at Portland State University. The vast majority will not likely be able to afford to live in a place like Terwilliger Plaza. 

The most fortunate will have enough money left to remain independent. If they’re really lucky, they’ll stay healthy enough to keep living in their own homes. Still, most of those who move to Oregon care facilities will end up in corporate-run, for-profit systems like those of Sunwest Management, a Salem-based retirement home operator with properties nationwide. So while a recent lead news story on Sunwest’s website was honest, it was also a little unsettling: “California Department of Justice Closes Investigation Concerning Sunwest.” The two-year inquiry centered on reports of patient neglect at two California properties.

While those claims were ultimately disproved, they’re worth mentioning, if only because Sunwest is the nation’s fourth-largest assisted-living provider—or was until it was forced to shed 132 properties totaling $1 billion in the face of financial, regulatory, and legal problems. While the 2005 claims didn’t stick, this year Sunwest suffered a $5.5 million judgment in a pair of class-action suits alleging unlawful business practices, false advertising, and consumer act violations at various properties in California and Oregon.

That might explain why receptionists at three local Sunwest properties were skittish when I called to ask about setting up a tour. Calls to Hawthorne Gardens Senior Living Community and Oswego Springs Assisted Living Community went unreturned. Ditto a message left with the receptionist at Park Place Assisted Living Community. Only Sellwood Landing was more than happy to show me around. And what they had to offer was nice. If Terwilliger is a Marshall amp revved up to 11, Sellwood is a solid 6. Located just across the Sellwood Bridge in a neighborhood loaded with Victorian homes, it sits on the block as a giant rectangle of robin’s egg blue. Inside, a ’50s-themed cafe (the Coca-Cola Room) is decked out in retro sock-hop style and cardboard cutouts of Laurel and Hardy; it’s the perfect spot for nickel bingo. The main dining room (where most meals are eaten, since most of the apartments don’t have full kitchens) is expansive, though drab furnishings give it the feel of an extended-stay hotel. Rent at Sellwood is month to month and runs from $2,795 for a studio to $6,045 for a two-bedroom apartment. Views range from the suburban charm of the local neighborhood to the parking lot of Foster’s convenience store. 

Upstairs, the activities room consists of a couple of old-school stationary bikes, a few five-pound dumbbells, and some board games. In the billiards room: a pool table. A common-use oven, on the fourth floor, allows for occasional baking. Today, though, the halls are empty. Granted, there was a field trip to Trader Joe’s on the schedule, but the building has 85 apartments, and the only residents I see are a couple napping in lounge chairs in the lobby.