Thirty was the magic number if you wanted to move to Mount Miguel Covenant Village when it first opened in Spring Valley, CA, more than 50 years ago. If you couldn’t demonstrate an ability to walk 30 paces without the use of any assistance, including a cane, then you couldn’t live here.

That’s unheard of today, of course. But in 1965, the Americans with Disabilities Act didn’t yet exist, nor did licensing requirements for retirement administrators in the state of California.

Retirement living was a new concept, and there were only nine retirement communities, including Mount Miguel, in the San Diego area. Door-to-door sales calls to market the property to potential residents — not by sales reps, but by the community’s own administrator — were the norm.

Much has changed in a half a century. 

On the heels of our 50th anniversary celebration and the dedication of the Peterson Life Center, I sat down with Marlan Enns (pictured), the administrator who made those door-to-door sales calls back in the day. Now 96 years old and a resident at Mount Miguel, he has watched the industry and our community evolve.

“If Mount Miguel had looked like it does today, then it would have been easy to sell!” Marlan commented after the $19.1 million construction of the Peterson Life Center.

Perhaps. But despite having only one building on a 10-acre piece of land with tumbleweeds and brush for landscaping, occupancy under Marlan’s seven-year tenure grew from three to 80. Sound leadership by Mount Miguel’s parent company, Covenant Retirement Communities, helped secure the purchase of 17 additional acres, new landscaping and the construction of four buildings, one of them a health facility.

“The greatest challenge was to convince people that ‘investing’ a goodly amount of their funds and paying a monthly maintenance fee made good sense,” Marlan said. “At the time, most aging facilities were residential homes, often maintained by the church, requiring no financial obligations other than a monthly fee.”

Mount Miguel’s monthly fee in 1965 was $150. It covered three daily meals, utilities (except telephone), 24-hour surveillance and transportation in a 16-passenger Mercedes Benz van. Today, monthly fees range from $1,800 to $3,600, depending on the contract.

Without the resources and the staff we have today, Marlan’s duties were far-reaching: marketing, human resources and maintenance. He also was the chaplain, social worker and bus driver. For a time, his daughters helped with cooking and housekeeping. His monthly salary? About $600.

Changes in healthcare services

Today, as a continuing care retirement community, we offer on-site health care services. In 1965, however, residents had to venture off-site if they required medical care or assistance. The concept of assisted living didn’t exist; instead, we offered “residential care,” which gave tenants access to a manager who would take emergency calls and check on them throughout the night.

The dining evolution

Mealtime today is a culinary experience. Food is prepared by a professional team of executive chefs, dietitians and nutritionists. Venues include fine dining, quaint bistros, cafes and coffee shops.

In 1965, residents were served three square meals a day in the dining room, family-style, with no à la carte options and no special requests.

“We didn’t offer choices on the menu like we do today,” Marlan said. “We served what residents would have cooked for themselves at home, and everyone was served the same meal.”

A more active retirement living

Retirement living today is more active than it used to be, Marlan observed. “There were fewer activities back then,” he said, and residents “pretty much kept themselves busy.”

On-campus activities were limited to shuffleboard, croquet, swimming, gardening and the occasional hunting by one resident in particular. “Martin Rabe, our first resident, used to sit on his porch with a .22–caliber rifle and shoot rabbits,” Marlan recalled.

Today, there is no rabbit hunting. Instead, there are more than 400 programs — many of them resident-run —offered monthly between four levels of care for 400-plus residents to enjoy.

Our residents are walking, running and biking for miles at a time — that’s a world of difference from where we started more than 50 years ago. I can only imagine where we’ll be in another 50.

See the then-and-now slideshow.

Rich Miller is the executive director at Mount Miguel Covenant Village, a faith-based, not-for-profit continuing care retirement community located in Spring Valley, CA. Mount Miguel is operated by Covenant Retirement Communities, the nation’s sixth largest, not-for-profit senior services provider.

McKnight’s Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.