Housing options good for seniors, if they've got money

New senior living complex
The Seasons at Maplewood features 150 units of senior housing, and opens later this month.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota's housing market is in the doldrums -- with one exception -- developers of housing for the state's growing elderly population continue to break ground on new projects.

Older folks with money have plenty of housing options. However, the Department of Human Services estimates more than half of the state's senior residents don't have enough money to cover their retirement costs, and their housing options are much less clear.

The housing picture for older Minnesotans with disposable income looks pretty good at Ecumen's brand new facility, The Seasons at Maplewood.

A studio apartment here starts at $1,900 a month in the 150-unit complex. One meal a day and other services are included in that cost, and as residents age, additional care is also available.

"We have a home health care agency here on site operated by Ecumen where we can come in and provide services in your apartment without moving," said Julie Murray, Ecumen's director of real estate and development.

Ecumen, a private nonprofit, is one of Minnesota's largest suppliers of senior housing. A big portion of its business is operating nursing homes, but the developer has branched out.

Besides the Maplewood development, construction is well underway on a similar market rate rental complex in Apple Valley. Ecumen has a smaller project in St. Peter, and another in Lincoln, Nebraska.

However, surveys continue to show the majority of older Americans plan to stay in their homes.

Donna Hendel, a retired nurse, and her husband, a retired doctor, both in their mid 60s, said that's their plan. The couple intends to stay in the Fergus Falls home where they've lived for more than three decades.

Orgranizing the creative arts studio
Amy Vursey organizes the creative arts studio at The Seasons at Maplewood in Maplewood, Minn. Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The issue, however, is maintenance.

On a recent day, the remodelers arrived to replace the old windows including, Hendel said, the humongous storm windows. She said no one around Fergus Falls is willing to help with them.

"You cannot do that, no one will get up on those ladders anymore," Hendel said.

Home maintenance and accessibility are near the top of the list of challenges facing older people who want to continue living at home.

In the Hendel's two-story home, the bathroom and bedroom are on the second floor. Donna Hendel said the couple can't afford to remodel the house to put bed and bath on the first floor. Paying for more help with chores or home health care is also a financial stretch, she said.

It's not a problem in the short term, but over time -- say 20 years -- the costs would drain their savings.

The questions facing Minnesota's older residents are driven in large measure by a demographic fact of life. Over the next 25 years, demographers predict the number of Minnesotans age 65 and older will more than double, from about 623,200 in 2005 to 1.4 million in 2035.

By contrast, the population under age 65 will grow only 10 percent.

Stacy Becker, a St. Paul public policy consultant, helps various groups understand the financial consequences.

Right now, Becker said, taxpayers supply about 40 percent of the cost of Minnesotans receiving long-term care. That adds up to a billion dollars a year.

"It's expected if nothing changes to grow to $5 billion by 2035, so the question is, 'where on earth are we going to get those funds?" Becker said.

Part of the answer, Becker believes, is that more people her age need to plan for their later years with savings. Another part of the answer, she said, is expanding insurance options, making reverse mortgages and other financial tools more available and affordable to people.

At a very mundane level, Becker said finding ways to help older homeowners afford low-cost remodeling, such as bathroom grab bars, better stair railings, and replacement door handles, can save taxpayer dollars.

"Things that are care or medical-related that could keep them in their home longer and delay or prevent them from needing to go on Medicaid," she said.

Becker also called for Medicaid reform.

Right now, Becker said the welfare program for poor people, including those who've spent down their assets, does not encourage them to save so they can afford housing and care when they're seniors.