A Nursing Home Takes Its Cue from Grand Hotel

updated 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

With its cream-hued, vaguely French-ch√Ęteau architecture and stately palms, orange trees, bougainvillea and oleander, it has all the requisite touches of an haute hostelry on Florida's Gold Coast. Past an airy lobby decorated with fresh-cut flowers is an enclosed mall that offers guests everything from a cinema to a chapel. In the game room, there's the clack of a cue ball rolling across the green baize surface of a vintage-1877 billiard table. At the flamingo-pink, Gay-Ninetiesmotif ice cream parlor, a waitress positions a maraschino cherry atop a sundae's mountain of whipped cream. And the dryers purr all day in the beauty salon.

Such are the delights at Whitehall Boca, which opened for business in early January in Boca Raton. But only senior sybarites need apply, since Whitehall Boca is a retirement and nursing home. Built at a cost of $8.5 million, the 135-bed establishment caters to clients who can pay from $25,550 to $62,050 annually. The daily rate depends on the amount of individual care needed. Medication, therapy, doctors' fees and tips are extra and Medicare is unacceptable. All food, snacks and wine are included in the basic rate.

At Whitehall Boca, breakfast arrives at 7:30 a.m. at the resident's bed, bathrobes are frowned upon outside of one's boudoir, and visiting hours don't exist, since friends or relatives may drop in whenever they please. Even the beds are beautified; cabinetmakers disguise each hospital bed by building a decorative head-and footboard onto it. Only when it comes to food and drink do things become less than Lucullan. Offerings run to such institutional dishes as turkey fricassee and braised short ribs of beef. But guests' tastes run to simple foods, and most seem happy enough with the fare.

Who can afford this kind of comfort? According to owner Steve Mulder, 37, the residents are mostly widows of men who had their own businesses and who left sizable estates. Ada Dufenhorst is one example. She ran a hotel in Rockford, III. with her husband till his death, and now lives in a cozy, $120-a-day private room decorated in warm earth tones with cane furniture and grass-cloth wallpaper. Now 86, Ada remembers: "I was awed when I saw this place. I said to my son Earl, 'This is too rich for my blood.' But he said, 'Mother, you can swing it, so why not?' "

Mulder can thank his partner for leading him into the lucrative luxury nursing home business. That partner is his father, Paul Mulder, 68, an ex-Chicago funeral director. According to his son, "He went after the luxury business from the time he opened his first nursing home in 1955." Now the Mulders operate this one plus three in the Chicago area and each is a little more luxurious than its predecessor. "We're making a 15 percent to 20 percent return on our investment," says Steve, "which is a good return in the industry."

While profit might motivate the Mulders, guilt is often the guiding force when a family places an aged parent at Whitehall Boca. Says chief administrator Dorothy Devine, "People can never get over it when a parent has said, 'God will strike you dead if you ever put me in a nursing home.' Having a place like this is one way to alleviate the guilt."

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