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Virginia Beach community for seniors offers retirement by the sea

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay, 2:30 p.m.

Coal colliers bob in gentle green swells on a gray afternoon, but it's bright and sunny 11 stories up.

The walls and carpets of Ty and Penny Brown's apartment are pristine white, and a shaggy round orange rug fills the living room with sun. Windows provide a glimpse of the scenes below: condominium rooftops, a sandy shoreline and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel disappearing into low-hanging clouds.

Paintings in gilded gold frames present a similar beach view plus two very different geographies: the craggy red cliffs of the Grand Canyon, which the Browns hiked twice in their younger years, and Yellowstone National Park. Mrs. Brown created all three, the first and largest taking nearly four decades.

The Browns have called this retirement place home since July 2004, when they traded their three-bedroom Chicago estate for the smaller apartment, with one bedroom occupied by twin beds. A second serves as a TV room for Mr. Brown, 88, and an alcove houses a painting studio for Mrs. Brown, 85.

It's just enough room, they say, to live out their final years. The bay beckons many for that purpose, locals and transplants like the Browns looking for an easier way of life. No more bothering with yard work or storm shutters or other routine chores. Plenty of time for reflection and dinner dances and croquet tournaments.

The Browns looked all over for their final home.

Sarasota, Florida, was too hot, and Boston "too damned cold," Mr. Brown says. But Virginia Beach was just right.

"We didn't want to be snowbirds," he says. "We wanted to really settle in and be a part of the community."

They excitedly show it off: a bank over here, a beauty parlor there, a gym and a craft room down the hall. The dining room, Mrs. Brown says proudly, always has cloth tablecloths and fresh flowers. And there's always something good to eat, such as steaming beef pot pie and pistachio-peanut butter biscotti, too good to pass up.

While Mr. Brown toiled at his law career, Mrs. Brown spent most of her years rearing their two children and keeping house. There's a maid for the latter now.

The duo have become regulars in the home's social circles, attending weekly musical performances and lectures on topics including stock trading and outer space.

PHOTO: Penny and Ty Brown stand on the balcony of their apartment at Westminster-Canterbury in Virginia Beach, Va. on Saturday morning, Aug. 23, 2014. The Browns have called this retirement place home since July 2004, when they traded their three-bedroom Chicago estate for a smaller apartment with one bedroom. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Martin Smith-Rodden)
Penny and Ty Brown stand on the balcony of their apartment at Westminster-Canterbury in Virginia Beach, Va. on Saturday morning, Aug. 23, 2014. The Browns have called this retirement place home since July 2004, when they traded their three-bedroom Chicago estate for a smaller apartment with one bedroom. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Martin Smith-Rodden)

"You can't be bored," Mr. Brown says. "You can't possibly do everything here."

Mrs. Brown — elegant, thin and warm with wispy white curls — takes line-dancing lessons twice a week. She sails and regularly swims in the bay, and is active with the Shore Drive Community Coalition and Lynnhaven River Now, an environmental nonprofit.

Mr. Brown — slightly shorter with glasses, socks pulled up to his calves, an impish smile and a wicked wit — sits on the finance committee of the retirement home's board and is on a first-name basis with most of the staff. He also volunteers at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, where he tends its roses.

They've made fast friends among the roughly 700 residents, but friendships in a retirement home can be fleeting.

The Browns aren't shy about discussing death, a frequent visitor, sometimes expected and welcomed, other times jarring. The home's chapel hosts regular memorial services. Its convenience store stocks condolence cards next to cookies.

"You have a certain amount of turnover in a place like this," Mr. Brown says.

"You get used to it. When you come here, you're going to die here."

But the couple doesn't dwell on death, focusing instead on their lives. And what better backdrop for their final act than the Chesapeake Bay, Mrs. Brown asks.

They have front-row seats for the drama of hurricanes, the action of windsurfing and the comedy of playful dolphins.

"We love the bay," Mrs. Brown says. "There's always something going on."

"And even when we get older and won't be able to swim" or stroll as far, she adds wistfully, "we'll be able to sit on the beach and watch."


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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