When you're 81 years old, health can be a fragile thing. Gemma Hessian discovered that in November when she fell in downtown Minneapolis, twisting a leg.

A stranger helped her back to her car and she drove home to Edina, where a friend took her to the emergency room. Hessian hadn't broken anything, but she had a badly pulled muscle.

In an instant, the retired nurse and hospital administrator went from being an energetic senior striding toward a college class on Russia to a hurting woman in a wheelchair. For Hessian, it made the debate about adding new care units to her senior co-op, 7500 York in Edina, all the more real.

"It shook me," she said. "In a flash, it can happen."

Hessian was among the 75 percent of co-op residents who voted last month to add a four-story addition that will include 76 units of assisted living, memory care and short-term care suites. It's part of the evolution of 7500 York, which 30 years ago opened as the nation's first senior co-op. Once full of mostly active people, the co-op now is home to many people in their 80s and 90s who have health issues but don't want to leave their beloved home.

"Assisted living is the wave of the future. We've been a leader before. Now we must continue to lead," said Russ Helgesen, the 88-year-old former president of the co-op board who first proposed the new project. "Some of us think this is the most crucial decision ever made in the history of 7500 York."

Not everyone favored the addition. Out of 337 co-op memberships, 254 supported the proposal and 62 voted against it (the remainder did not vote, but were counted as no votes). Opponents worried about blocked views, construction noise, loss of green space and disruption from the emergency vehicles that they expect will be called to the new building.

Mark Johnson was a vocal opponent. At 76, he and his wife, Thelma, enjoy living in the co-op and joke that they "feel like kids again" because the average age of their neighbors is 83.

While Johnson objects to seeing the new building from his fourth-floor unit and thinks the project site could be put to better use, he also worries that outsiders will think the co-op is a place for the very old. If the building doesn't attract younger people, he said, there may not be enough manpower to effectively run the many committees that govern the facilities.

"Those of us on the younger end of the spectrum would say we aren't attracting enough young people," Johnson said. "We like to think of this as a senior co-op, not just a medical complex."

Always cutting edge

The addition of assisted living and other services is just the latest reinvention of 7500 York.

When the co-op opened in the late 1970s, potential residents had to have a physical to prove they could live independently. Federal fair housing and disability rights laws soon changed that.

As the age of co-op residents increased, a home health care company set up an office there to offer services to residents who needed help with such things as cleaning, medications or getting dressed.

That, too, was controversial. But with increasing age came more pressing issues. Some elderly residents now drive daily to visit spouses in nursing homes miles away. Sick people who had to leave the co-op miss spouses and friends. All the driving, especially in winter, takes a toll on those who are left behind. One resident drives back and forth three times a day to see his wife, who is in a nursing home.

Bob Jarvis, age 82 and vice president of the co-op board, supports the addition.

"I lost my wife a year and a half ago, but this has been a wonderful place to be with so many friends around to support you," he said. "I've seen statistics that say when you have to go into a nursing home, it tends to shorten lives because you miss friends and family and familiar surroundings. Here, you'd be close and friends would be nearby."

The new building, which Ebenezer Management Services hopes to begin building by summer's end, will be connected to the co-op by a passageway. Susan Farr, Ebenezer's vice president of business development, said the nonprofit will lease the land and own and operate the addition, giving co-op residents preference in admissions.

Ebenezer manages 22 sen- ior co-ops and condominiums around Minnesota. Farr said 7500 York is the first to seek an addition for extended care.

"They are leading the way and being progressive," she said. "They're very smart. ... If it's icy in the winter, they can just walk and visit their spouse, their friend, their neighbor."

Waiting list remains long

So far, the project hasn't deterred possible co-op buyers. The waiting list for multiple bedroom units exceeds 10 years. Perry Strassman, the co-op's general manager, said many potential residents ask if assisted living is available.

Within the co-op, any hard feelings over the debate about the addition appear to be ebbing. Jarvis and Johnson were on opposite sides of the debate and kid each other about it. Johnson, who waited 13 years to get a two-bedroom unit, loves the co-op and said he urges friends to get their names on the waiting list.

Jarvis said he respects the views of those who opposed the project. But in the end, he said, residents decided "people are more important than trees."

The project has received preliminary approval from the city of Edina. Ebenezer's board of directors and its parent company, Fairview Health Services, also must give final approval.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380