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The Old Country in Old Age : Elderly: Armenian-Americans are creating facilities for their aging parents that incorporate their culture.

October 25, 1990|TAMAR MAHSHIGIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the Armenian community, putting parents in an old-age home is tantamount to abandoning them. Yet a Southland Armenian organization, Ararat Home of Los Angeles Inc., is running a convalescent hospital that ranks among the best in the nation.

What's going on here?

In general, Armenians and many other ethnic groups feel it is the responsibility of the parents to care for their children until old age incapacitates them; then the roles reverse, and the children do the parenting. Nursing homes and hospitals usually are not considered as options unless an older person requires constant medical care or doesn't have any children.

"Armenians are opposed to old-age homes. A 94-year-old man is being taken care of by his adult children. That's the way it's done in the Armenian community," said John Vosbigian of Westchester, who has served on the board of the Ararat Home and its companion convalescent hospital for 25 years.

But Vosbigian is one of a growing number of Armenians that believe in the necessity of an Armenian home for the aging. "We must do for our own," said Ararat Treasurer Helen Abajian, whose father helped found the home in 1950 near Crenshaw and Adams boulevards in Central Los Angeles. (The convalescent hospital opened 10 years ago.)

Thanks to consistent supporters and a dedicated staff, the Ararat Convalescent Hospital in Eagle Rock is "one of the very finest facilities in the country," according to the California Assn. of Homes for the Aging, which compared the near-perfect evaluation the federal government gave Ararat this spring with data on homes nationwide.

It is said that care at the Ararat Convalescent Hospital is so good that the patients, many of them in their 90s, live to see many more birthdays than their doctors and children expected.

Though that's something to be proud of, it has created a major problem: The waiting list to get into the 42-bed convalescent hospital is very long, and often some people on the list die before a space opens up.

Because of Southern California's growing Armenian community, which now numbers between 250,000 and 300,000, there's an urgent need for more space for the aged. The Ararat Convalescent Hospital and home turn away dozens of elderly Armenians each year for lack of space.

Now, after years of saying, "I'm sorry, we have no room," the administrators of the hospital and the home are looking forward to the long-awaited completion of a large home for the aging in Mission Hills.

The first phase--a 130-bed board and care facility, kitchen and 24,000-square-foot community center--is scheduled to open in August. Completion of the second phase, an adjacent 99-bed convalescent hospital, is expected by the fall of 1992. Both will be owned and operated by Ararat Home of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization set up 40 years ago to provide care for the Armenian elderly.

When completed, the Ararat Home and Community Center will be the largest Armenian institution for the elderly in the country. The complex will include a multipurpose community center with a free-standing chapel, a museum, a gallery with a stage for performances and lectures, a banquet hall with a seating capacity of 650 and a picnic area that will accommodate 3,000 people.

The board of directors of Ararat Home put in the community center, museum and gallery to draw people of all ages to the facility. "With the museum and the stage, younger people will come to the community center and will come in contact with the elderly. That's good for the old people because they get to see fresh faces," said Ararat Home Chairman Robert Shamlian of Glendale.

The board's long-range plans include the expansion of the residence and the convalescent hospital to house 600 people. Board members also hope they can raise enough money to build a row of condominiums for elderly couples who want to live in a retirement community.

The 10.6-acre site of the complex was purchased several years ago at a good price, board members said. But the property has one major drawback: It sits on an earthquake fault.

One of the facility's architects, George Kirkpatrick, said: "The complex is structurally designed with that consideration in mind. The parking lot is directly over the fault. The building is more heavily reinforced."

The property is on a picturesque knoll overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Coincidentally, behind the site are two hills reminiscent of the twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, a symbol of national pride for the Armenian people.

After the Mission Hills complex is built, some Ararat Home board members believe they will need to open homes for the elderly in Hollywood, Orange County and other Southern California communities with burgeoning Armenian populations.

Areg Abramian of Redondo Beach and his brother struggled with the idea of placing their mother in the home four years ago.

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