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Dawn Vaillancourt left ,gave Bill Flesher a flower during a birthday celebration for residents of Walker Methodist Westwood Ridge community members who were born in October . Vaillancourt is the activities director at Westwood.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

The next step for senior housing

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • October 25, 2011 - 11:21 AM

It's hospital room meets a hotel suite.

The 37 transitional care and rehabilitation suites under construction in West St. Paul will accommodate recuperating seniors well enough to leave the hospital but not quite ready to return to their homes.

Walker Methodist is building the suites as part of an $18 million expansion of its senior housing complex, Walker at Westwood Ridge. The expansion also includes 24 memory units-apartment-style living for seniors with Alzheimer's and other memory issues -- and 10 care suites.

"The goal of transitional care is to serve a community member recovering from injury or illness and then give them the tools necessary to go back to living successfully in the community and in their home," explained Matt McNeill, Walker Methodist corporate marketing director.

"More than 80 percent of people do return to their communities and their homes," McNeill said, looking at the nonprofit's other transitional care units.

And unlike hospital stays that can cost thousands of dollars a day, transitional care rooms range from $400 to $500 a day, McNeill said.

The expansion joins 126 independent and assisted-living senior apartments already at Westwood Ridge.

The project's focus on "continuum-of-care" options illustrates the changing landscape in senior housing. As the number of seniors grows in Minnesota, they're shying away from traditional nursing home settings and choosing independent and assisted housing with a variety of care options.

"Statewide, we're seeing a decline in the demand for skilled nursing beds. We're seeing more demand for more assisted living. We know our customers don't want to be in an institution," McNeill said.

In Minnesota, the number of senior housing units with services has grown to 57,507 while the number of skilled nursing home beds has declined to 31,391, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics provided by Aging Services of Minnesota.

About half of the Westwood expansion -- the memory and care suites -- is considered assisted living. The transitional care units will be classified as skilled nursing beds but are part of the continuum-of-care model because they are designated for short-term stays, McNeill said.

Upon completion in summer 2012, Westwood Ridge will add 100 new jobs to the existing 40 staff positions.

"The City Council has been very supportive of this project," said Jim Hartshorn, West St. Paul's community development director. "There is definitely a market for senior housing."

Seventeen percent of the city's residents are 65 or older -- one of the grayest in Dakota County.

Ethel Johnson is part of the new generation of more discerning seniors. She chose to leave her Inver Grove Heights home and move into Westwood Ridge almost four years ago.

"I just decided there was some help here if I ever needed it. I didn't want my kids to have to do it," Johnson explained. "This is just a nice, homey-looking apartment rather than one that looks like a hospital. I love it here. I made a good choice."

Johnson's one bedroom flat has a living room, full kitchen and bedroom.

Johnson, 88, gave up driving, so she regularly uses the van service to grocery shop, go to doctors' appointments and run errands. She said she also enjoys the social outings, including trips to the horse track, factory tours, bingo and restaurants.

Johnson said hanging up her car keys and other life changes haven't always been easy but at least there are now a variety of services and living arrangements available to seniors.

"This is a way better option than a nursing home," she said.

Shannon Prather is a Roseville freelance writer.

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