KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A specific industry is seeing some growth in East Tennessee: Assisted living facilities for seniors or older people. With 77 million Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – either retired or planning to retire over the next decade, the number of assisted living services are increasing to meet the demand.

No one wants to leave their home, but the reality is as our population ages, more and more people need assistance. Assisted living housing provides an option. But, the cost of nursing homes or assisted care facilities has evolved and has become quite expensive.

Assisted living communities

Assisted living communities like Wellington Manor in Newport offer physical and emotional support to keep seniors healthy and safe. While many seniors would prefer to stay in their own homes, it’s often family members who encourage them to choose assisted living.

Alma Williamson moved here a year ago At 77, she’s healthy, but a widow. She said her son worried about her being alone

“… my home is not real close to anybody that I could yell and get attention to me, if I was to fall and couldn’t get to the phone,” Alma Williamson said.

Molly Ford, the director of Wellington Manor, says assisted living facilities are strictly regulated. She showed us half a dozen binders filled with federal and state regulations. The Tennessee Department of Standards alone is 25 pages long. It outlines among other things, life safety rules and security regulations for the facility and dietary needs to keep everyone healthy.

“These are important because they set out the guidelines for how we do things and to keep everyone safe,” Molly Ford, director of Wellington Manor, said.

So who are some of the 38 people who live at Wellington Manor? Why are they here? And, not at home?

The grounds at Wellington Manor make living here pleasant, just like home. But, assisted living facilities aren’t cheap.

Wellington Manor’s cost is below the state average of $4,000 a month for assisted living, according to Genworth’s Cost of Care Survey.

Across Tennessee, the average daily price of a semi-private nursing home room is $5,400 a month.

Group homes

Less expensive group homes may be an option for those who can’t afford assisted living. A licensed senior group home might have up to five residents living in a house.

An unlicensed group home in Hamblen County was shut down by the state last month. It did not comply with many of the life-safety regulations that Molly Ford explained. And, for several years this place slipped under the radar.

“There are 10,000 people every day turning 65 and have been for the last 10 years,” Tammy Francis said.

Tammy Francis has been in the senior care business for nearly 40 years. She operates a home health care service and hospice care. She does not condone unlicensed group homes. But she believes the state needs to find a way to license some of them that offer good care.

“In my opinion, I think they need to be licensed but not over regulated. That is where everything always gets crazy,” Tammy Francis said. “The state is going to have to look at helping supplement some of these group homes so they have an affordable option.”

The people at unlicensed group homes are often those who draw less than $1,000 a month in social security benefits. As a result, their options are limited if they’re unable to live at home alone.

A group home provides adult residents with room and board, and assistance with personal needs in a home-like setting. Ideally, no more than four to five people are allowed by the state to live in a group home, but the practicality of it is — they do.

The news was out at Zonna’s Place. Cledie Holloway who had lived with Zonna Gilbert for a year was going to have to find another home.

Mrs. Holloway and eight other residents at the group home were leaving because the state was shutting the place down. Clidie, a widow, stayed here because she was unable to live at home alone.

The state found Zonna’s Place was too crowded, originally 13 residents were in 6 different rooms.

The state Fire Marshal discovered fire safety and electrical code violations in mid-March, with no easy way of escaping the home for some residents if there was an emergency.

“If a fire in this home were to occur, it would potentially have tragic consequences as many of the home residents are incapable of self-care and they would be unable to escape a fire,” Kevin Waters, Fire Marshal Spokesperson, said.

Zonna’s Place was unlicensed, yet it had been operating as a group home for several years. How did it fly under the radar? First – it was in a private home and until March there had been no complaints about the place.

Don Gulley, a widower, moved here about two years ago.

“Well, There was no place to go,” Don Gulley, a Zonna’s Place resident, said. “I couldn’t afford anything.”

Carla Murray, disabled and living on a limited income, has been with Zonna for three years.

“They make sure we are took care of,” Carla Murray, a Zonna’s Place resident, said. “I don’t think (it’s crowded), it’s like family to me. It doesn’t bother me a bit.”

Zonna Gilbert has operated unlicensed group homes in the Morristown area for 17 years. The residents she says have come from Sevierville, Chattanooga, and even southeast Kentucky.

“The Morristown-Hamblen hospital, the social workers there call me all the time because they have people that don’t have any money, that don’t have anywhere to go,” Zonna Gilbert, Group Home Operator, said. “They ask me if I have room for them, that’s why I got overcrowded, I always try to make room for everybody.”

But allowing crowded conditions is unsafe even though residents appear healthy, well-fed and happy.

“…they have nowhere to go. They can’t afford these nursing homes or assisted living places,” Jessica Daniel, Group home caregiver, said. There is a growing number of older people in Tennessee who can’t live alone, yet they draw under $1,000 in monthly social security benefits.

“The state doesn’t see what we see every day,” Jessica Daniel said. “The needs for these people.”

On April 23, the home was shuttered, the remaining residents were relocated to new places in Dayton and Greeneville, Tenn. and one was transferred to West Tennessee. Group home services are needed because a lot of people don’t have options.

Local lawmaker weighs in

Can a way be found to license group homes like Zonna’s to get them out of the shadows? That question has caught the attention of a leading state lawmaker.

“I do believe the legislature through the Department of Health is going to have to visit this and find out what exactly can be done,” Jeremy Faison, State Representative for District 11, said.

Rep. Faison is the Republican Caucus Chair and a member of the Health Committee. He spoke last week to the state health commission about this issue.

“We have countless senior citizens in group homes right now that may or may not be licensed, but if we shut all of that down, where are they going to go? Who is going to pay for them to exist somewhere else?” Rep. Faison said. “This is a conversation that you have brought to the forefront in Tennessee and it’s going to take some serious examination, thought, and perspective so that senior citizens can be safe.”

Representative Faison says the “serious examination” about “starting the conversations” of licensing some borderline group homes may start next year when the legislature returns to Nashville.

Keep breaking news and weather alerts at your fingertips. Download the WATE 6 News and Weather apps.