Bob and Elaine Ambrose didn’t plan to stay in their house forever.
They bought their Wayzata walkout in 1984, when they were both working and their sons were still young. Over time, additions and fixes have made the house their own, and now they want to live there as long as possible.
Bob Ambrose, 69, watched his parents move to care facilities as their needs grew. He doesn’t want that for himself, although he knows that staying in a house is not always realistic.
“Ideally, we would be living those golden years and then just fall over dead someday,” he said. “The way that my parents have ended up is not at all attractive.”
The Ambroses are at the leading edge of a wave of aging baby boomers who are opting to stay in their own homes — a wave that will only grow in coming decades. Already, communities nationwide are scrambling to provide housing, transportation and care services.
The challenge is especially acute in the suburbs, which are expected to age faster than cities and weren’t built with older adults in mind. Many are spread out and accessible only by car, isolating older adults who may be unable to drive to the grocery store or navigate a large, multistory house but also don’t want to leave their community.
“In suburbia, you have one type of housing. You have one way of getting around,” said Kathryn Lawler, aging and health resources manager at the Atlanta Regional Commission. “And that was eventually going to become a problem.”
In the Twin Cities, the most pronounced demographic shifts over the next 30 years are expected to occur in the region’s five all-suburban counties. According to the Minnesota state demographer, all five will see their 65-plus populations more than double in that time. The most severe changes are expected in the southwest metro. Scott County, which now has the lowest percentage of adults ages 65-plus in the state, could see that population more than quadruple by 2045.
And it’s likely those people will want to stay where they are. A 2010 AARP survey of 1,616 adults ages 45 and older found that nearly three-quarters of respondents wanted to stay in their homes, and two-thirds wanted to stay in the community. About a quarter of respondents said they couldn’t afford to move.
Some cities and counties are building more senior housing, giving older residents the option of staying in the community even if they can no longer stay in their homes.
But new housing is likely to be only part of the solution.
“There’s going to be more and more voices, aging boomers that are going to start demanding services and a higher level of accommodation,” said Jess Luce, program manager for Dakota County’s Communities for a Lifetime. “And they’re going to fully realize that some of their suburban communities aren’t fully prepared to meet their needs.”
Aging in place isn’t a new idea, Lawler said. What’s different now is how long people are living.
With longer life spans come greater care needs — and people who want to age in place may find their communities don’t have options for the long-term.
In its early days, Eagan was zoned for multifamily housing. But in the 1980s, the City Council swung the other way, changing the zoning code to make way for more single-family homes.
“We went from one extreme to the other, so that almost everything that occurred for a long period of time was catered toward McMansions,” said Dakota County Commissioner Tom Egan, who represents the area. Now, he said, people who want to downsize don’t have many options.
The picture is similar in Carver County, where the 65-plus population in 2045 is expected to be more than four times what it was in 2015. Already, older adults have started moving away to find accessible housing, said public health program specialist Jennifer Anderson.
Watertown, on the county’s western edge, has lost so many older residents that the local pharmacist has noticed a decline in business, she said. In Victoria, residents have banded together to ask for more diversity in new housing.
But new building alone isn’t going to meet baby boomers’ housing needs, said Alissa Boroff, director at Access Solutions, which designs home remodels for accessibility. Existing houses will need to be updated, too.
And even when those changes are made, Boroff said, a steep driveway or a street without sidewalks can make it tough for someone to age in their home.
Jack Kennelly, 65, retired two years ago and bought a condo in Mendota Heights. Though he’s still working part-time and regularly hitting a Minneapolis boxing gym, he chose a first-floor unit to avoid stairs that might be an obstacle later in life.
His building is just off the highway, and minutes from Minneapolis and St. Paul by car. But without much transit nearby, he doesn’t know what will happen when he stops driving.
“I don’t view that as a problem yet,” he said, “but that’s, maybe five years from now, something I need to be looking at.”
Without a connection to the surrounding community, aging in place might do more harm than good. A 2004 study from the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that people over 65 who don’t drive make fewer trips to the doctor, shop or eat out less and don’t see their family and friends as often as drivers of the same age.
“Every senior says, ‘I want to live in my home for as long as possible,’ ” said Michael Klatt, president and CEO of the Lutheran Home Association in Belle Plaine. “But you reach this … tipping point that says, is that in your best interest? Are you so isolated that it’s not even healthy anymore?”
Preparing for the future
Nearly 20 years ago, Debbie Beck and her husband sold their house in Woodbury and bought a single-level condo in Eagan. But two years later, he died and she had a massive stroke. She started using a walker to get around, and found it increasingly difficult to keep up with household tasks.
Then she heard about DARTS, a local nonprofit that provides social work and volunteer services to help people stay in their homes. They sent people to help with grocery shopping and cleaning. After Beck, 62, had a second stroke that left her in a wheelchair, a DARTS employee came to widen doorways and fix things around the house.
“It’s made it really possible to live in this home,” she said.
Local groups, from nonprofits to informal neighborhood coalitions, are shouldering much of the work of helping older adults stay in their homes. DARTS, which serves people across Dakota County, is expecting its client base to double within the next five years and may experiment with video technology to deliver services.
Meanwhile, cities and counties are gradually making their communities more age-friendly. SmartLink Transit has provided door-to-door ride service in Scott and Carver counties for years. Dakota County is implementing a program to assess the “age-friendliness” of its major cities. Carver County is in the early stages of improving accessibility for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
And last month, Eagan kicked off its new “Eagan Forward” initiative — a set of long-term goals that includes preparing for the city’s aging population — with a community procession and fireworks display.
“When did we know people would be turning 80? Well, probably about 50 years ago,” said Jean Wood, Minnesota Board on Aging executive director. “But I think that lots of communities and providers have started recognizing it.”