When Edina's 7500 York Cooperative for senior citizens was new, the residents who came down from their apartments to the first-floor restaurant for dinner wore suits and ties or dresses and high heels.

Almost no one used a cane. In a building designed for independent living, that was a sign of weakness. Walkers and wheelchairs were nowhere to be found.

Now, as the building marks its 30th anniversary as one of the nation's first senior co-ops, diners in the restaurant fight traffic jams created by walkers that must be cleared from the aisles, yet must be nearby for their owners.

While one resident jogs down the lobby stairway and out the door for a quick walk in the cold, another resident sits sightless in an armchair facing the windows, clutching a cane.

7500 York is an extreme example of aging in place. It is populated by 423 highly educated seniors who were teachers, bankers, nurses, business owners and ministers. As a co-op, each resident owns a piece of the 337-unit building, and they and their elected board govern what happens there. Many love the place for its community spirit.

Yet keeping to its original intent -- a residence for people ages 55 and older who can live on their own -- has become a challenge as residents cling to their homes even though they inevitably need more assistance. In the past decade, in the face of some resistance, the co-op has welcomed in-home health care and is now looking to build an assisted living, memory care and short-term care facility next door.

"One thing you learn here is to face the reality of aging," said Hulda Gieschen, 89, who a few winters ago greeted a heavy snowfall by making snow angels. "We help each other."

A radical idea back then

When ground was broken for 7500 York in 1977, senior co-ops were still "a radical idea," said Perry Strassman, the building's general manager. The Edina project was the nation's first federally insured senior co-op.

Ebenezer Management Services, which manages the building, says it also is one of the most successful. Officials from Japan, Korea and around the United States have visited. Almost 500 people have put down deposits to be on a waiting list that lasts anywhere from a couple of months for a one-bedroom unit to 15 years for a two-bedroom apartment.

Chester Long, 94, is one of only two original residents who still live at the co-op. He moved in on a frozen day 30 years ago with his wife, Verna, who died five years ago.

"I recommend this place to a lot of people. I'm well satisfied with it," said Long, who once grew tomatoes in a plot on the 7500 grounds but now is legally blind and walks with a cane. "You can find a lot of senior housing, but not like this."

The restaurant, which last week was decorated with flags marking Veterans Day, serves dinner seven days a week and breakfast twice a week. A library, grocery store, gym, beauty shop, game rooms, workshop and computer room also are there. Residents plan, plant and care for the formal gardens around the building as well as personal garden plots. The co-op owns a van that residents use to get to stores, theaters and other places.

Although residents range in age from 57 to 100, the average age is 83 to 84. When the building opened, most residents were in their mid- to late-60s.

That aging trend created a challenge for marketing director Barbara Murphy, who has to make it clear to potential residents that the co-op is not a nursing home. "As the building age goes up, the age of the people who want to move in goes up," she said.

While many co-op residents are very active -- more than 200 residents are involved in committees that tackle everything from co-op finances to music and arts -- they can be invisible to visitors because they're usually out shopping and walking and traveling. What visitors often see is the wheelchair stashed under the main staircase and residents who sometimes sit in the lobby.

What people don't know, Murphy said, is that those people once were among the co-op's most active members. Now, as physical limitations make it more difficult for them to interact, residents come to talk to them. "You can come down and just sit and close your eyes and listen to life," Gieschen said.

How to manage the aging of the co-op has proved controversial for residents. Fifteen years ago, when people needed help cleaning or cooking, or after they suffered falls, they often turned to neighbors. Some residents questioned why people who were fading physically or mentally were allowed to stay in the building. But federal housing and disability rights laws have changed since the building opened. People who owned part of the building couldn't just be kicked out.

Services to aid residents

Ten years ago, in a decision that some residents fought, the board allowed a home health care business to set up an office in the building. It's a way for people who need assistance to get help with dressing, taking care of medications or handling other needs. Now, after a year of debate, the co-op board has approved plans for a 75-unit building next door to offer assisted living and memory care units and rooms for people recovering from a hospital stay. It would be owned and managed by Ebenezer.

Gieschen, a co-op resident for 14 years, thinks residents' collective spirit triumphs over their differences. In a co-op newsletter, she wrote about comments she'd heard in the halls. Among them: "I wish I were 90 again." "Don't worry about aging -- it won't go on forever." And: "I'd be happy to embrace aging if I could lift my arms."

"It's wonderful to have people in the same boat you're in," she said. "They've all found things that work. What's isolating is to be alone in a house somewhere and all your neighbors have moved away."

For Joan Voxland-Anderson, stopped in the hall as she was rushing past, the co-op has been a place of renewal. The shy wife of a minister, she said she played organ in church but had never had a leadership role until she moved to the co-op. First she was coaxed to read at Lenten services. She enjoyed it and did it again. Her involvement grew. Now she is chairing the committee that's steering the redecorating of the lobby.

"I didn't know I could do this," she said. "I love it." And she hurried on.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380