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Troublesome undercurrent wells up in Woodbury

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • April 26, 2010 - 10:34 PM

Stonemill Farms is a placid enclave in Woodbury with a community pool, picturesque brick bridges, parks and a community center that looks like a barn. Ersatz corn silos make it seem like an idyllic small town.

"Stonemill Farms will be the scene of many memorable days with family and friends alike," according to marketing materials. The development, with its $300,000 to $500,000 homes, is "the perfect place to raise a family," the website boasts.

But maybe not if your family is like that of Woodbury resident Marilyn Nehring, whose husband, Jerry, has few memorable days now because he has Alzheimer's disease.

Residents at Stonemill are opposing an attempt to turn an empty retail site into housing for people with Alzheimer's or dementia. It's the latest group of people no longer desired in our neighborhoods or cities, no longer thought of as valuable or viable because they "are not a good fit" or because they will scare the kids or drive down real estate prices -- the sick and the elderly.

Residents of this new development expected a Starbucks or dry cleaning business but, because of a stagnant economy, developer Joe Baumann turned to one area that is likely to grow exponentially: providing care for baby boomers as they age. Baumann, who took care of an uncle who had Alzheimer's, thought Stonemill would be a good place for a small facility because it fits with the philosophy of "intergenerational programming," which mixes people of all ages in one neighborhood. But as word spread, so did the fear.

I wasn't at the planning meeting, but I watched a video of it. Some who spoke were measured and thoughtful. They raised legitimate concerns about parking and traffic. But beneath the careful words was an unmistakable undercurrent that was difficult to fathom.

"I bought into that community because I thought that it would enhance my quality of life," said one resident. "I don't want to say 'Not all are welcome,' but ... it's not a good fit."

Another man opposed it if there were "one-tenth of one percent chance that anything could happen to a kid."

A woman holding a baby fretted that potential clients with brain damage probably led lives of daring and danger, which might return. They don't have "the fear, the healthy fear, that the rest of us have," she said.

Indeed, although I'd have to take issue with the word "healthy."

Baumann said the city of Woodbury continues to support the facility, and he believes the majority of Stonemill residents do, too, but they aren't the ones who show up for meetings. He said most of the critics have concerns about the "enhanced memory care" patients, some of whom can get belligerent or aggressive when they are confused. But they will be in a secure area. "They are locked in for their protection, not to protect the community," he said.

Baumann said he will continue to educate Stonemill Farms residents about Alzheimer's, and encourage supporters to be more vocal.

Nearly everyone who spoke against the facility had concerns that their children might be attacked or see an elderly adult do something inappropriate.

But Janelle Meyers, housing director for Prairie Lodge Assisted Living unit, also run by Ecumen in Brooklyn Park, said children are regular guests there. The caretakers of the most severely affected people are highly trained. "They know the residents very well, and can anticipate when problems are most likely to occur," she said.

Meyers brings her son to work frequently, and there is a day-care center directly across the street.

"They bring the kids here on a regular basis," Meyers said. "They do crafts and sing. It's good for both of them to have contact with each other."

"Some people don't have respect for older adults," Meyers said. "They are undervalued, and, personally, I think that's so sad."

Nehring, who has to drive several times a week to Brooklyn Center to see Jerry, agrees. "Finding a place to move Jerry was not an easy thing to do. I'd love to have something closer," she said.

People who don't want a home for Alzheimer's patients in their community puzzle Nehring.

"We are all aging," she said. "We will all get ill. Our children need to realize we need to find a space for us because everybody is eventually going to need some sort of assistance."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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