The Twilight Zone

Where will seniors live?

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE, DAVID PETERSON and MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 9:15 AM

An aging Minnesota population has the housing industry trying to meet yet-to-be defined needs.

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Jeanne Mullen, 89, enjoyed her water aerobics class at Boutwell Landing in Oak Park Heights. “I just feel better when I exercise,” she said.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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River Bluffs Village sprang to life in January 2009 as a virtual retirement community serving residents of five cities spread across Dakota County. Modeled on a successful project in Boston, it aimed to provide rides, handymen and other services so that elderly people could age in place as they became frail.

The Minnesota version, however, will die at the end of this month, a few of its services picked up by a Dakota County social services agency. Despite $275,000 in support from a private foundation, the project could not attract the critical mass of participants willing to fork over the $600 annual fee.

"In the end, we could not interest enough people to enroll in a program that they didn't absolutely need right now," said Mark Hoisser, CEO of DARTS, the sponsoring agency.

With Minnesota's elderly population expected to double in the next two decades, gerontologists and urban planners agree that the state needs to expand its stock of senior housing. Attempts to build for the future can been seen all across the Twin Cities, from "granny pods" in Scott County to high-rise condos in Richfield.

The question is: Will baby boomers go for them when it's their turn to retire? Or will the projects flop -- the failed dreams of well-intentioned planners?

"Whatever the boomers say they want now, they're going to change their minds," predicted Robert Kramer of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry in Annapolis, Md.

"What I know is they won't want to be called seniors, and most of them won't want to be living with a bunch of old people -- even when they are the old people."

As a result, developers and civic leaders are wading gingerly into this demographic wave, watching what works and what doesn't across the Twin Cities landscape.

"We've had a lot of change over the past 10 years,'' said Kathryn Roberts, CEO of Ecumen, a church-affiliated senior housing nonprofit in Shoreview. "But what's coming? We're only guessing."

"This is all old people!''

Construction of new senior housing slowed sharply in 2007 as the real estate market collapsed. But the Twin Cities was adding more than 1,000 new units a year in the 1990s, and experts expect some recovery soon.

In the mid-1980s Richfield made a conscious choice to try to lure seniors out of their single-family homes but keep them in the community. The result was a densely built neighborhood of shops, restaurants, condos and apartments designed for easy living near the intersection of 66th Street and Lyndale Avenue.

It worked, said John Stark, the city's director of community development. Single-family houses turned over, and Richfield's homeowners are now among the youngest in the Twin Cities.

But after that burst of development, the City Council decided against putting more senior developments at the Lyndale hub. Some of the older projects now have vacancy problems, Stark said.

"When senior developments opened in 1990, a bunch of people who were 65 moved in," he said. "Now there are a bunch of 85-year-olds living there. And when they try to market it, someone who is 65 walks around and says, 'Wait a minute, this is all old people.' "

Along the downtown Minneapolis riverfront, the fledgling Mill City Commons is trying a different experiment. Like the Boston project, it offers a combination of services and activities for senior residents of several buildings, and so far it's succeeding.

"We're building a community where we support each other," said board chairwoman Marcia Townley, a retired philanthropic adviser who returned from New York City to be near family. "Is this a choice our kids might make? I really don't know. But if our kids join, I suspect they will reshape Mill City Commons, as they have everything else."

Near Stillwater, Presbyterian Homes launched Boutwell Landing a few years ago as a campus of the future for seniors, a "continuum of care'' village with apartments, townhomes, a nursing home, shops and a movie theater.

But it could be the nonprofit's last huge development. "We can plan only four or five years out," said Dan Lindh, CEO at Presbyterian Homes & Services of Roseville. "Maybe the baby boomers will want something like what they're choosing for their parents now -- but maybe not."

Getting rid of the chores

Last summer the state Department of Human Services, which has been working for more than a decade to prepare Minnesota for the aging wave, commissioned a survey of baby boomers' plans. Most boomers are optimistic and happy enough with their current housing and community, but many intend to make changes in retirement. Only a few plan to head for the sunny South; most say they'll stay nearby, a few more in condos, townhouses or apartments.

"What they like is single-level living and getting rid of some of the chores, like snow shoveling," said Loren Colman, assistant commissioner. "Remember, these are people who have moved more than their parents, and are more willing to spend money for services that fit their lifestyles," he said. "Choices they make at age 65 or 75 or even 85 may not be their final choices."

What's apparent is that baby boomers want to live as independently as possible at home, whether that's a house, a condo or even an assisted-living apartment.

Some of the changes are starting one family at a time. Over the past two to three years, for instance, something started to change in the semi-rural townships of Scott County.

"We were viewing building permits for the larger homes going up in the eastern part of the county," recalls planning manager Brad Davis, "and seeing floor plans that showed a second living unit -- usually on the second or third floor or over an attached garage."

When the county warned applicants that it allows only single-family homes, the homeowners said they wanted separate units -- for an aging parent, perhaps, or an adult child returning home.

Early in September in the nearby town of New Prague, Ken Ondich sent out an all-points bulletin to fellow city planners on his professional association's website.

Ondich wrote that he was confronting for the first time a request for what's been called a "granny pod" - a separate pre-built housing unit trucked into town and plopped onto someone's back yard.

What was he supposed to do? No one with any sort of heart could fail to empathize.

But, Ondich said, "I'm thinking: This is a slippery slope that could open the door to some really crowded lots and bad rental units." Some neighbors worried that what started as a kind gesture could turn into income-producing property -- or dumpy-looking additions and a clutter of cars.

Scott County commissioners eventually drafted a strict ordinance: "All kitchen appliances and/or plumbing equipment shall be removed once the accessory dwelling unit is no longer occupied by a family member."

How much is enough?

In Bloomington, many seniors have chosen to remain in their ramblers, which are easily remodeled and often have bath, kitchen and bedrooms on one floor. But the city has encouraged a range of senior housing, including condos, apartments and specialized projects such as housing for people with Alzheimer's disease.

Such projects, however, sometimes trigger controversy in Bloomington and neighboring Edina. The most common objection: density. "People are usually comforted by the fact that the residents will be seniors," said Larry Lee, Bloomington's director of community development.

Even more senior housing is on the way in these two iconic suburbs, but figuring out just what sort is an art, Lee said. He said today's seniors are not the same as people who turned 65 even 20 years ago.

"Everybody has a story of a 90-year-old grandma still living in her single-family home,'' he explained. "We're learning that a variety of choices is the best thing that works for us."

What the future holds

In interview after interview, planners and developers say this is their best guess for the future: Single-family homes will become more high-tech, with more devices and services to help frail people stay put and help their families monitor their condition from afar.

The line between independent-living apartments and assisted living will blur, with assistance services, including nursing care, available in all manner of housing.

Nursing homes will become more like hospitals -- short-term options for people who need intensive medical care.

"Older people are going to be even more engaged and active in the community," said Ecumen's Roberts, at 59 squarely in the boomer generation.

"Most of us will be healthier. And wealthier? Not all will be. As a nation we still have to figure out how to finance long-term care and convince more people to be responsible for their care as they grow old.

"But overall, this is really exciting stuff. The boomers have always been changers, and that's never going to stop."

wolfe@startribune.com • 612-673-7253, dapeterson@startribune • 952-882-9023, smetan@startribune.com • 612-673-7380

  • about this series

  • The Twilight Zone series by Star Tribune reporters explores the ways, good and bad, that an aging population will change Minnesota.
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