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PRIMETIME Seventh heaven Minnesota's elderly women strike a balance

By Melanie Evans

Duluth News Tribune

HIBBING, Minn. -- Sigrid LeTourneau is one of 68 occupants of Hibbing's Seventh Avenue Apartments.

The 80-year-old widow chose to live in subsidized apartments rather than a nursing home, in part, to maintain her independence.

"It takes courage," said LeTourneau, who survived two husbands: Roger Lind, who died in a duck hunting accident, and Gil LeTourneau, who died of bone cancer in 1979. It's not easy to begin again after losing a spouse, she said.

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For women living at Seventh Avenue and in similar apartments, the path that led to public housing probably began with the death of a husband or frailty brought on by illness and age.

Some left behind a house they were unwilling or unable to maintain, for physical or financial reasons. Others sought out Seventh Avenue's subsidized apartments for their 24-hour home care, a service that's gradually expanding to Minnesota and U.S. public housing. Still others followed friends who made the move to Seventh Avenue.

But all face an identical challenge: staying independent as varying degrees of illness or isolation threaten to erode their autonomy.

More than half of Minnesota women in their late 70s live with someone, but fast-forward 10 years, and nearly seven in 10 women live alone, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Aging experts consider elderly women living alone in subsidized apartments to be at high risk of ending up in a nursing home unless they have help with chores, meals and medical care.

"Long-term care is a woman's issue," said Don Redfoot, an AARP senior analyst who studies housing and home care for seniors. Support for elderly, low-income women also is a national issue, he added. "It costs less to use assisted living than to let people get so frail they end up in a nursing home."

Home care at Seventh Avenue lets occupants return home after hip surgery or a stroke, says Marion Huber, the Hibbing Housing and Redevelopment Authority's service coordinator. Most often it is a "medical crisis" that forces Seventh Avenue's occupants to move to a nursing home.

Huber sees how the frailties of age can frustrate Seventh Avenue's occupants. For 12 years, Huber has worked in three apartments with subsidized senior tenants.

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She troubleshoots problems, mostly related to complicated Medicare or medical bills. She also listens.

Residents talk about family news, financial anxieties, or depression at the loss of old friends or family. Huber said she has learned from her clients' resilience.

"Even people who will carp at the small things -- they are so brave about the big things," she said. Family and friends die. Cancer and diabetes ravage their bodies. "They face deaths. They have all kinds of losses. They face it with great courage. They face it with humor."

Monica Stehlin, an energetic and wry woman uses a walker occasionally, mostly for balance instead of support. The 98-year-old moved into Seventh Avenue shortly after it opened in 1983. In a concession to her age, Stehlin grudgingly stopped driving her Buick two years ago.

"I was getting bad eyes, and I didn't want anyone to get hurt," she said. "I miss my car. I miss my car so much. It was so valuable to me. I have a hard time going without it."

Without the car, Stehlin's outings are limited, but her mind is active. "You can't just sit. Your mind gets terribly dull."

Five years ago, Seventh Avenue added around-the-clock home care, which Minnesota pays for using money from Medicaid, a safety net insurance plan for the poor and disabled. Stehlin relies on that aid for grocery shopping, one meal a day and cleaning. Without it, she would be forced to move, she said.

"I just don't want to go to a nursing home," Stehlin said. She watched two close relatives die in nursing homes. "I've lived through it," she said. "I don't want to die through it."

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She compensates for failing eyesight with large-print playing cards and books, though she has given up on crossword puzzles. On Monday nights, she plays bingo. On Friday nights, she regularly plays cards.

The same foursome meets at 7 p.m. each week, taking turns hosting the game. Players only change when one is lost to ill health or death, which happened recently when Stehlin's friend and neighbor passed away.

"You take what you've been dealt," she said. "You have to adjust because there's no other way."

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