"I'm happy here," Della Mineer said, pausing to look up from a watercolor painting she was working on in her room. "I like it because I'm right in the center of things I'm familiar with. I'm as close as the phone to friends and relatives."

Home for the 86-year-old Mineer has been East Lake Care Center in Provo for the past 18 months - and she likes it. In fact, before Mineer came to East Lake, she phoned repeatedly and lobbied to get in.When its new three-story, $5 million wing officially opens Monday, East Lake Care Center will be the biggest nursing home in Utah with 223 beds.

Those will come in handy, since East Lake has had a waiting list for two years and has been turning away at least two people each week for lack of space.

The need for supervised living situations will mushroom dramatically in the coming years as baby boomers age and need someplace to live where they can get medical attention and help, in varying degrees, with daily living.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging projects a 47 percent increase in the nursing care center population between now and the year 2000.

The term "nursing home" used to conjure up images of dreary warehouses for the elderly. However, that has changed since the 1970s, according to Patricia Johnson, president of East Lake's parent company, Quality Health Care.

"We're lucky. Utah made a commitment to change its long-term health care. The Health Department closed a lot of old homes and provided loans to upgrade buildings," Johnson said.

"The elderly didn't used to get too much respect," Johnson said. But today's huge demand for nursing homes has prompted many people to rethink what constitutes quality care. And people increasingly are insisting that their parents - and, ultimately, they - end up with clean and well-managed care centers.

"People are demanding quality, they are demanding a nice place tolive," Johnson said. "A lot of people are saying, `We've got to make things right because I'm going to be there.' "

Johnson is all for that, including adding many extras that create an attractive environment. The new wing, for example, is decorated in soft colors such as blush pink and gray-green, and rooms feature wallpaper borders. The beds have hospital rails but are made of cherry wood to avoid an institutional look. Johnson and her partners spent $50,000 on artwork to brighten walls and also bought a large supply of plants.

Additionally, each patient will have a phone jack - a rare but welcome touch in a care center. Even the beds in the two-patient rooms are arranged so that if one patient has the privacy drapes drawn, the other can still look out the window.

Johnson also focuses on other less-visible amenities that make a huge difference in patient care, such as having higher than usual staff-to-patient ratios.

Kory Coleman, East Lake's administrator, is pleased with Quality Health Care's philosophy. "I hope when I'm walking around that I see my aides sitting on the bed with patients, reading a book to them, talking to them," Coleman said, adding that the only way to make that possible is to have enough employees to get routine tasks done so there is time to mingle with patients.

Coleman obviously thinks East Lake offers good care - his grandmother stayed there for a while.

East Lake is what officially is termed a "skilled nursing facility," which means it has 24-hour nursing care. It also offers intermediate care for people who need some help with daily living and "sub-acute care" for individuals who are very ill or just underwent surgery.

East Lake also provides hospice care for terminally ill patients, adult day care, respite care and rehabilitation for ill or injured people ranging in age from infants to centenarians.

About 70 percent of the people who come through East Lake's doors go home after some type of rehabilitative services, including occupational, speech or physical therapy.

With the advent of the 102-bed new wing, 68 of the center's 223 beds will be dedicated to short-term rehabilitation while the rest will be used by people who probably are there for a long-term stay.

Della Mineer, who jokes that she's going to live forever, is there for a long stay.

A local resident and wife of the late Lawrence Mineer, she admits she misses her former independence but realizes that she needs the kind of medical care and help with daily tasks that only a nursing home can provide.

"It was necessary," she said. "I couldn't be by myself. I've had five cancers and a broken back."

East Lake is quite the place, she said. "The people who work here are wonderful. We have the neatest aides - they're my pals," she said. "I'm happy here."