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A place to call home: Reports find what's needed for retirement living

Community members point to specific needs as options for aging community lag alongside overall anticipated housing shortages.

Housing for Seniors - Bob Keith
Bob Keith, who lives at The Homestead at Rochester and serves as a chaplain, works on a sermon Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, at his apartment in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Bob Keith realized his four-bedroom home was too much to handle after he was hit by a car while walking in a crosswalk.

The Mayo Clinic retiree said his injuries made some daily chores difficult, but he also struggled when others reached out to help.

“I’ve been a volunteer a lot,” he said. “People were coming out and volunteering to work in the garden and mow the lawn. It was emotionally difficult for me to let people do it, since I was always on the other side.”

In 2012, Keith and his wife moved into The Homestead at Rochester, 1900 Ballington Blvd. NW, and he said he quickly knew it was the right decision.

“We moved from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom, and that’s fine,” he said. “We don’t need any more room.”

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Now 90, he said Homestead, which provides independent living with some services available at added cost, offers a chance to remain active and hopefully delay moving into assisted living or long-term care.

While it was the right decision for Keith, he acknowledges it’s everyone’s preferred move — independent living with less work involved.

That's why he recommends looking at options as early as possible, hopefully before an incident forces a move.

Rochester resident Marti Riley, an active volunteer and Southeast Minnesota Area Agency on Aging board member, agreed, but she’s taking a different route.

The IBM retiree looked into independent living options when she realized the three-floor townhome she purchased 20 years ago won’t suit her as she ages.

She said she looked at senior cooperatives, independent living facilities and market-rate apartments near key services, but nothing met her needs at a price she could afford.

“It just wasn’t financially feasible at the time,” she said. “It was more cost effective to me to take the money and put it into the home I have already paid off.”

As a result, she’s modifying the main floor of her townhome to meet her needs. She said that when the work is done, she should be able to live on the single floor and still have more space than offered by many senior-focused housing options.

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Providing insight

Such personal and varied insights helped inform a recent report by the Coalition for Rochester Area Housing, which sought to identify needs for added senior housing as the population ages.

Riley was one of nine Rochester residents who served as “co-designers” for the report, providing their personal views, as well as interviewing seniors, such as Keith, throughout the community to discover what people need and expect from housing as they grow older.

“I’m right at that age where all the things we are talking about are very real to me. … I’m living them right now,” Riley said, but she also gathered insights from friends who were forced to move into more senior-friendly housing and others who want to stay in their family homes as long as possible.

CRAH Senior Housing Report 2021 by inforumdocs on Scribd

Dan Conway, eldercare development program developer for Southeastern Minnesota Area Agency on Aging, said the desire to remain in place is common.

“In survey after survey, a majority of seniors really want to remain in their own home for as long as possible,” he said. “If they can’t remain at home, they want those affordable options.”

The coalition report, along with a 2021 assessment by Age-Friendly Olmsted County, highlights the desire to stay put as people age, but it also finds a broad range of reasons for the decisions.

“A vast majority of folks who are seniors did not want to leave for a variety of options,” former coalition director Jeremy Emmi said, pointing to financial, emotional and community connections.

For Byron’s Betty Tomm, community is key. She bought her townhome after her husband died, which allowed the 85-year-old to stay in the city she’s called home for four decades.

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“I plan to stay here until I can’t anymore,” she said. She had her home built with aging in mind.

When it comes time to move, she said she’s already started looking at options in Byron in order to remain close to friends, but has some concerns about cost.

Bruce Buller, who served with Riley on the housing coalition’s co-design team and interviewed fellow Homestead resident Keith for the project, said affordability and a sense of community are important.

Housing for Seniors - Bruce Buller
Bruce Buller has lived at The Homestead at Rochester for six years. Buller is photographed Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in his apartment in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

He said he opted to move into the smallest apartment available to ensure he could afford it with his pension as a retired minister. He said he quickly found a sense of community among his new neighbors.

“It’s different, but it’s home,” he said.

Building on information

Olmsted County Housing Director Dave Dunn said hearing the variety of personal experiences shared, along with developing a list of needs from residents, was important.

“It’s one thing for us to assume this is what we think seniors want or saying this is what we hear, but the nice thing about the co-design process is it engages seniors in the community, who are then turning around and engaging other members of the senior community,” he said.

Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden, who represents the county in the coalition that also includes the city of Rochester, Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Foundation, said the work helps provide insight for developers, who have often been hesitant to tackle senior housing projects.

“There’s a need for developers to have reliable information on what seniors in the community say they want,” she said.

She said persuading more developers to think about senior housing is crucial.

A 2020 update to a 2014 Olmsted County housing study says there's a need to create approximately 5,400 new senior housing units by 2030 after falling behind in earlier goals.

That’s compared to the 3,000 units counted in 2020, which came with a 3.5% vacancy rate at the time.

The 2020 study estimated the number of Olmsted County residents between ages 65 and 74 will grow by 3,517 people — 24% growth — between 2020 and 2025.

It also states senior housing requirements in the next eight years will include a variety of types, from more accessible homes that can be purchased to memory-care facilities.

“It’s not a binary choice,” Dunn said of the need for variety, which likely includes options that aren’t currently available in the local market.

He said little has been built for seniors in the county since the 2020 report was completed, but some projects are in the works, including a potential 40-unit senior apartment complex the county plans to build on Mayowood Road.

“I’d say there are four or five projects in the hopper,” he said of discussions with private developers and others.

Addressing affordability

Laurie Brownell, executive director of Southeastern Minnesota Area Agency on Aging, said building the housing isn’t enough. She said affordability will be a key factor, since many seniors have already paid for their current homes.

“They have to have some affordable, accessible options to transition to,” she said. The sale of an older home, she said, might not cover the long-term cost of a new accessible townhome or rental unit.

Keith said he’s starting to feel the pinch at Homestead, where his rent has increased 67% in approximately 10 years. He said he’s able to manage at this point, but further increases could force a change.

Emmi said affordability concerns are seen at all income levels, since retirees typically have capped income based on Social Security and pension payments.

“Affordability is the overriding piece,” he said.

Dave Beal, marketing and communications manager for Family Service Rochester, said increasing demand for senior housing as Baby Boomers enter the market and older adults live longer requires a broader focus on cost.

“It’s not just low-income housing or subsidized housing,” he said.

Riley said her discussions with fellow seniors found that cost is a driving factor for anyone living on a fixed pension or Social Security payment. While people in higher income levels might have more monthly income, it still restricts options, especially when other services might need to be purchased.

“I think people would be willing to move, but where do you find affordable housing?” she said.

The organizers behind the housing coalition’s report, as well as efforts like Age-Friendly Olmsted County, hope to find community support and answers to that question.

“This report will be the beginning of really studying the demand side of senior housing,” Emmi said.



It’s never too early to consider housing needs for later in life

ROCHESTER — Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said she knows she will need to move.

“I want to age in place in my own home, but I have to look around here and realize the home I live in is not going to let me age in place,” she said.

As the county board’s representative on the Coalition for Rochester Area Housing and former member of Gov. Tim Walz’s 2018 task force on housing, the 75-year-old elected official has some insight into what she’ll need. She also knows more options are needed in the community, especially when it comes to homes that are accessible and affordable for seniors.

She said creating more housing to meet the needs of the county’s growing senior population could address other housing concerns along the way.

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As seniors move into a new home or apartment, she said their larger family homes will go on the market, allowing families to move up from affordable apartment units. Those apartments then become available for younger families.

“If developers would start to build homes that seniors would want, the homes seniors are in are generally more suitable for families,” she said. “Then you get a domino effect.”

The coalition’s recent housing report is intended to help market the concept to local developers and builders. It outlines features that are likely to attract older buyers and renters, while also outlining the increasing need.

With thousands of new senior housing options expected to be needed by 2030, Kiscaden said developers should see potential in catering to the aging population.

“That’s a big market,” she said. “If you can design for that market, you have the potential for a lot of home sales as a developer.”

Fellow Commissioner Gregg Wright said the market doesn’t have to be restricted to people who have already retired.

The 72-year-old built his Southeast Rochester home before retiring, but made sure it had features that will serve him as he ages.

“Everything is on one floor, and it's already built with non-slip surfaces and other amenities,” he said.

He said builders and buyers should consider installing a variety of features in homes being built and bought today.

Things like standard grab bars, walk-in showers and assistive technology.

Things that may not interest seniors are large kitchens or yards that require maintenance.

Jeremy Emmi, the former coalition director who helped shepherd the senior housing report, said developing a list of needs and amenities that would attract buyers or renters is the first step in encouraging more private development.

“We know, after talking to builders and developers, that risk is really a primary barrier for them,” he said.

Dave Dunn, Olmsted County’s housing director, said risks could also be reduced by providing financial support or incentives to build a variety of senior housing options.

“Part of the reason senior housing hasn’t been developed is that for market developers, there are other types of housing that are either easier to produce or more lucrative, so we want to create an incentive to try some of these different ideas and techniques that have been talked about.” he said.

Rochester resident Marti Riley said she knows from experience that thinking ahead is important when it comes to housing.

As the population ages and more people look for accessible living spaces, she said she imagines developers will eventually meet the needs with new innovation.

With that in mind, she said people should keep an open mind and start pondering options before retirement.

“Whatever you might need when the time comes might not even exist when you start looking,” she said.

Age-Friendly Olmsted County Community Assessment 2021 by inforumdocs on Scribd

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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