John Knox Village adapts to aging trends

Performing arts specialist Rebecca Hubbard leads the Men's Glee Club rehearsalat John Knox Village in Lee's Summit.
Performing arts specialist Rebecca Hubbard leads the Men's Glee Club rehearsalat John Knox Village in Lee's Summit. The Kansas City Star

Seniors these days, as best they can, refuse to get old.

Like George Weeks, 86, who did some gold mining in Arizona after retirement before settling in rural Missouri. He and his wife, Darlene, recently moved to John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit, where he pursues his passion of building guitars.

Or John Knox residents Scott and Ann Orr, who are in their 60s. They sold their house in Independence to get maintenance-free living and spend more time boating on Truman Lake.

So John Knox Village can’t afford to sit still, either.

Opened in the early 1970s, the John Knox campus is getting a $90 million rejuvenation to replace dated apartments with new units that appeal to an oncoming wave of potential new residents who want updated decor and contemporary features.

To make room, John Knox Village is demolishing some older buildings. Rising will be a 52-unit addition to the Courtyard Apartments, capping renovations at Courtyard.

Also, it will build 112 units called the Meadows, which will offer sun rooms, porches and balconies, and full kitchens. Some buildings are getting internal improvements, with studios combined to make larger apartments.

All will be nicer than the former apartments. They’ll have a washer and dryer in each apartment, instead of the shared laundry facilities in older buildings on campus. They’ll have updated kitchen appliances and countertops. Most apartments in the Meadows will have a view of the community golf course, lake or park.

“We’ve always made changes to the property, but nothing of this magnitude,” CEO and President Dan Rexroth said. “It’s like rebuilding a small town over the course of a few years.”

John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, says housing markets will be transformed by aging baby boomers.

In an article in Urban Land Magazine, he calls that cohort — about 42 million adults now turning 65 — “the Trendsetters.” He said they’ve “broken the mold each decade since the 1960s.”

According to McIlwain, they’ll move out of their existing homes, leaving suburbs for cities and jobs, or so-called “town centers,” looking for maintenance-free condos within walking distance of restaurants and parks.

Trendsetters, with their generally good health, he said, will be wanting knee, hip and other body part replacements so they can keep cycling, hiking and maintaining vigorous lifestyles to share with their grandchildren.

He said some will choose life-care communities like John Knox Village, particularly if those communities offer amenities like Wi-Fi and support an active lifestyle.

John Knox Village was founded by Kenneth Berg, a Presbyterian minister who built retirement communities in Missouri, Kansas and 15 other states. In the late 1970s, Berg lost control of those communities because of civil lawsuits, an IRS tax lien and a federal fraud conviction.

Since then, John Knox’s finances have stabilized, and the nonprofit community is now run by a board that includes residents and community members.

Construction of John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit started in 1968. It included residential units and a skilled-nursing care center. In 1988, it added a new, larger nursing center of 430 beds. The history of John Knox is one of continual updates.

In 1997 and 1998, it opened 16 units of villas. In 2003, its board approved floor-by-floor renovations of the Courtyard apartment buildings. In 2004, a renovated and expanded chapel was rededicated, a project financed by the John Knox Village Foundation. In 2007, new villas were built. In 2014, it added assisted-living apartments.

John Knox Village has about 1,000 independent-living units in a mix of single-family homes, villas and apartments, plus more than 400 beds in a health care setting.

Rick McDowell, president of the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council, said an investment the size John Knox’s has a large impact in the region and Lee’s Summit as the dollars will “turn over” seven or eight times.

It creates construction jobs, on the John Knox campus and elsewhere in the city — for services, shopping and entertainment. It also brings more families to the city.

“It’s a destination. Having something like that as a hub in your community is beneficial,” McDowell said. He added that John Knox Village is a good corporate citizen, supportive of the larger Lee’s Summit community.

In the Kansas City area, John Knox pioneered the concept known as a continuing care community. Many residents pay a hefty entry fee and then monthly fees.

In return, they get maintenance-free living in single-family homes, villas or apartments — residents don’t even change light bulbs. As they age, they can move to assisted-living units and finally to a skilled-nursing facility. The community also offers standard leases for those who simply want to rent.

As market conditions changed, John Knox Village adjusted.

Rexroth, who became CEO in 2001, has worked at John Knox Village 25 years, starting as vice president of health services. He said it has always been changing to meet emerging needs, such as adding more memory care units.

The upgrades to apartments aren’t the only improvements.

The Meadows will have 27,000 square feet of common areas, including a 20-meter lap pool, with a whirlpool and locker rooms, and a new fitness center, adding to John Knox’s fitness offerings of two smaller pools and current fitness center. It will be equipped with Wi-Fi.

The community is rejiggering its restaurants to offer more choices, with five distinct experiences from fine dining to a bistro, a pub and a coffee shop, Rexroth said.

“One of the things we read about retirees is they’re looking for choice,” Rexroth said. “Efficiency only goes so far. People reject it. They say, ‘Just because I’m 70, why should I compromise?’”

John Knox Village has had its own bowling alley and golf course for decades. Along the way it added its Hobby Hut, a woodworking shop. It also has an art studio, theater and music groups. In partnership with Metropolitan Community College-Longview, John Knox also will be offering more distance learning.

Trips to the Quality Hill Playhouse or Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art are more interesting to older adults than bingo, Rexroth said.

Part of John Knox’s management includes area managers who each have responsibility for a territory, answering residents’ questions and helping them solve problems.

Teddi Crawford has worked there for 30 years, Milissa Seid for 24 and Connie Taylor for 22, in all kinds of jobs at John Knox. They’ve observed how residents’ expectations for service have grown over the decades.

One driver of that change is technology.

More are using e-books, smartphones or tablets.

Residents ask for Wi-Fi hotspots so they can access devices away from their homes. In the Meadows, building-wide Wi-Fi is planned. Instead of a computer lab, desktops are scattered at kiosks in various spots throughout the campus to be convenient for residents who want to use them.

Crawford said John Knox’s population is diverse in terms of age and ability.

A few residents are still working, leaving the campus every day, requiring expanded hours for the dining facilities. Older residents are staying mobile longer, with scooters provided by Medicare or the improved walkers available today, so they’re interacting more with neighbors instead of holing up in their apartments.

A more active population needs more common space, and wider hallways, which John Knox is accommodating in its renovations.

Newer residents also want more usable space, Crawford said, but not necessarily extra rooms. They want closet organizers and designs for living. They don’t want a closet with just a clothes rod. They don’t want a dining room used only occasionally.

Fitness has always been an interest, the managers said, but as something earlier residents pursued more on their own, or in small groups that would form with a resident as a leader. For years, exercise equipment was limited to a couple of treadmills, tucked into spare space and donated by residents.

Today, a well-equipped fitness center is expected to be part of the deal.

There’s a growing taste for learning, such as health seminars or distance learning.

Tastes are switching up, too.

There are requests for gluten-free food. The menu at John Knox restaurants has expanded beyond comfort food. Now residents want arugula instead of humble iceberg lettuce.

“They want salmon salad, but also their ham and beans,” Taylor said.

The renovations will include a pub.

Rexroth said it wants to encourage such socializing for residents’ health and happiness.

“That’s really what the village is about, trying to connect people,” Rexroth said. “It sounds corny, but we take that seriously.”

Pat and Ron Clement moved to John Knox on Dec. 28, 2013, on days sandwiched between storms dumping snow on Lee’s Summit.

“We watched someone else clean the sidewalks for us,” Pat Clement said. “It was lovely.”

Before moving to John Knox Village, Pat Clement was director of the public library in Pittsburg, Kan., and Ron Clement taught business at Pittsburg State University.

Pat, 68, and Ron, 71, downsized from a house in Pittsburg that had three bedrooms, a den, full basement and screened-in porch. Their villa in Lee’s Summit has two bedrooms but a bigger kitchen. Ironically, Pat Clement rarely uses it to cook. They prefer going to the restaurants on the John Knox campus where they’ve met new friends.

“We met more people here in one year than 16 years in Pittsburg,” Ron Clement said.

With adult children living in Kansas City and St. Louis, the Clements had looked for a place to move that would be more convenient for visiting family, downsized but large enough for visitors. They have eight grandchildren.

They looked at six other retirement communities in Kansas and the Kansas City area.

They were initially attracted to Lee’s Summit because of the Amtrak station downtown, where a daughter could take the train from St. Louis. Their villa is in the middle of the campus, within walking distance of its Performing Arts Center and the golf course.

Ron Clement volunteers for AARP, helping other older adults prepare tax returns. Both sing in choral groups at John Knox Village, and she’s director of the community theater. They work out at John Knox’s fitness center.

“We wanted to come someplace where there’s lots of activity. We didn’t want to have to go across town,” Pat Clement said.

Ron Clement is on the John Knox Village Finance Committee, which advises its board of directors. The committee meets twice a month, and its role is to help keep residents informed about governance of John Knox. He said residents are supportive of the renovations.

“It’s really going to improve,” he said. “It’s just really old. They’ve been maintained, but after 40 years, things get run down.”

For example, the two current swimming pools are great, but small and obviously old, Pat Clement said, and she’s looking forward to the new aquatics center.

Leases start at $1,051 for a studio apartment. But residents may pay a monthly fee of $841 a month, if they have paid an entry fee of just under $95,000. Both include a meal plan, and prices vary according to the unit a resident chooses and the kind of financial plan selected.

Ron Clement said that at first glance, the entry fee shocks. Still, it was lower than other communities they considered. With further analysis, the cost is reasonable, he said.

“When you first look at the numbers, they look kind of high,” he said. “There are a lot of things they do for you that can add up to thousands of dollars over the years.”

Residents don’t pay property taxes, don’t pay insurance, don’t fix leaky plumbing or replace roofs.

They stay in the unit they’ve chosen as long as they like, then choose a new dwelling in John Knox Village as it fits their needs as they age.

If they run out of money — a real anxiety for some retired people — John Knox Village doesn’t make them leave, Rexroth said. They have a secure home for life, he said.

There are safeguards in case a resident doesn’t like the community, Ron Clement said. Residents who decide to leave during the first three years can get a partial refund of the entry fee, in decreasing amounts the longer a resident stays.

Physical safety can be another source of anxiety for older adults.

The Clements said each bathroom in their villa has a cord hanging in a corner, connected to an alarm that can alert dispatchers to John Knox Village’s ambulance service. If they need help and can’t telephone, they just yank the cord.

“I like knowing there is somebody really close, that will show up really fast,” Ron Clement said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind at this point, I’m very comfortable here. This is where I’m going to die. I hope not soon, but this is where I’m going to die.”

George and Darlene Weeks have lived in a John Knox Village villa since July 1.

George is 86, and Darlene is 76. The couple, who met through a mutual friend, married three years ago.

They’d moved a year ago from Arizona, where he had been mining gold during retirement, to a house sitting on 5 acres in Mexico, Mo. The maintenance was wearing them out.

“There comes a point when you realize you just can’t do this forever,” George Weeks said.

They chose John Knox Village, in part because Darlene Weeks was familiar with the community after having lived in Raintree Lake, a Lee’s Summit subdivision.

“In my heart I knew it was where I wanted to be. I love Lee’s Summit,” she said.

The move to John Knox Village freed George Weeks from the burden of mowing 5 acres, and he also was lured by the Hobby Hut where he could continue his decades-old hobby of building guitars. He left behind his tools when moving from Arizona.

At the Hobby Hut, a fully equipped woodworking shop, residents build projects or repair furniture for other residents. Weeks recently has been working on a guitar — cutting out its curves and gluing panels together to fashion the body of the instrument.

“My first was crude, but they got better,” he said. “I’ve had some very good ones.”

He plays keyboard and mandolin, made a dulcimer and is learning to pick out a few tunes on it. He’s a member of the Valley View Fun Band, a John Knox Village organization that plays every Wednesday. Anybody who wants to can bring an instrument and join, he said.

Darlene Weeks said they use the community’s fitness center, something they’d never done before.

“We’re a little bit healthier,” she said.

About seven years ago, Ann Orr’s father started visiting a friend living at John Knox Village. Two years ago, he fell and needed to move from his house. He wanted to move to John Knox, and that’s where he died.

Now Orr and her husband are residents of the retirement community, where Scott’s mother also lives.

Ann, 65, and Scott, 67, have a different outlook from her father’s generation, which associated retirement communities with “nursing homes where you go to die,” she said.

For them, John Knox Village represents freedom. They retired 13 years ago and had a house in Independence and also a modest house at Truman Lake.

They wanted to spend more time boating instead of maintaining the main house in Independence. But, forward thinking, they also wanted a plan for the day when they’d need easy access to medical care.

Ann Orr said that too many times, they’d seen one spouse get sick, forcing a move. They saw couples try to find a place to live with the added complication of then trying to sell the home.

Instead of moving entirely to the lake and being forced to move again someday, they chose to make their primary home in a duplex at John Knox Village — with a screened porch, a patio for grilling, vaulted ceilings and a fireplace.

They frequently go to the lake but also take advantage of the restaurants and programs at John Knox Village.

Scott Orr’s mother lives in John Knox, and Ann Orr’s brother and sister-in-law are considering moving to John Knox, too. “It’s gotten to be a family thing,” she said.

Orr said she applauds the community’s management for renewing its campus to be ready for the next generation of residents.

“It’s wise of them,” she said. “It’s exciting because our friends will be out here. The baby boomers are going to come.”