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Home sweet home: Many want to 'age in place'

Tom Gillaspy

MinnPost photo by Kay Harvey

Longtime Minnesota state demographer Tom Gillaspy, now semi-retired, still does some heavy lifting.

Third of four articles

As the autumn air turns crisp in Minnesota, the conversation over coffee with friends can go something like this: “Are you going somewhere warm this winter? And where would that be?” By that time last year, three in my coffee clan of 60-somethings already had fled – not just for a week but for the winter. Where to? Florida, Arizona and Mexico.

Along with those destinations, Texas, California and New Mexico rank among Minnesotans’ favorite destinations for cold-weather escapes, said recently retired state demographer Tom Gillaspy. While some older Minnesotans have moved to warm-weather states, he expects that fewer aging boomers (now ages 47 to 66) will go that route. That’s because larger segments of the boomer generation will be “a little less well-heeled,” he said, than their parents were.

“People who tend to move tend to be those who are better off,” Gillaspy said. “Boomers are more likely than their parents’ generation to go for the winter rather than pull up stakes in retirement and move to Florida or Arizona,” he said. “People without the resources don’t do those things.” 

The ‘new’ retirement

One problem “is even defining retirement,” Gillaspy said. “Many people start taking Social Security and yet have some earnings.” His retirement is a case in point. After leaving his career job as state demographer in March at age 64, he took his pension, began teaching at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute and doing some consulting, he said.

How’s retirement? “Busy,” he said. Unexpected forces have colored the picture for boomers in recent years. “Many hit by the recession lost their jobs.” Many began taking Social Security early, which means a smaller amount per month than if they’d waited until age 66. Even then, they can earn $14,000 a year tax-free until age 66, when the “tax penalty” on additional earnings expires. 

“Some people say they’ll work forever,” he said. But it’s Gillaspy’s observation, based on research and tracking Social Security, that not many can do that.

“It’s easy when you’re 60 or 61, to say ‘Oh, I’ll just keep working.’ ” But life and health issues tend to get in the way, he said. As for Gillaspy, he works at staying healthy by hiking mountains, lifting weights and running 40 or 50 miles a week. Despite people’s good intentions, he said, “To suggest people are going to work into their 70s and 80s is really unrealistic.” 

Four part series: Baby Boom to Aging BoomAmong Minnesotans ages 55 to 74 who move to another state, their moves have been “pretty uni-directional,” Gillaspy said. That direction is south. On the flip side, people 75 and older moving to Minnesota tend to move from the south. Many in that older group are singles, he said. Some return or relocate to be nearer family because of illness or after losing a spouse – or, Gillaspy said, to access Minnesota’s high-quality health care.

Responding to a question in the state-sponsored Transform 2010 Data Report survey of baby boomers across Minnesota [PDF], just 22 percent said they were considering a move to another part of the country. Only 5 percent said they were thinking of moving to “a different climate” in retirement. 

Minnesotans forever

Most Minnesotans past their mid-to-late 20s don’t move, he said. “They age in place.” That concept of staying in a community has long been promoted by Minnesota human-services planners, who see the value of community and family support in navigating old age. In Minnesota, some multigenerational communities formed after young families bought homes after World War II in Twin Cities-area suburbs such as St. Louis Park and Hopkins. Many of them stayed put.

The result was a mix of people across the age span capable of helping each other, by caring for children and/or older people and helping across generations in other supportive ways.  Some of those communities later became known as NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. A senior advisory committee for that project came up with another acronym: “nurturing our retired citizens.”

The Transform 2010 project [PDF] of the Minnesota Department of Human Services cites three key aspects underlying a community’s ability to support aging residents: physical, social and service infrastructure.

In Carver County, for five years the only county in Minnesota with an office on aging, an ambitious initiative is engaging both baby boomers and their elders in creating communities where residents can “age in place.” In addition to longtime residents of the county, new people are moving in, said Katy Boone, the county’s director of aging services. Population in the county, on the Twin Cities’ southwestern edge, is projected to grow from its current 91,000 residents to 198,000 by 2030. The number of people in its major cities – Chanhassen, Chaska, Norwood-Young America, Waconia, Watertown and Victoria – is expected to double.

A range of medical facilities is already in place, including Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, the new Two Twelve Medical Center with specialty units in Chaska, a hospice center between Victoria and Chaska and a memory-loss unit in Victoria. Community partnerships that include Ridgeview Medical Center and the county’s public health division share another goal: making Carver County the healthiest county in the country. By 2020, as boomers continue to age, “Carver County residents will consist of more empty-nesters than families with children,” Boone said.

'Aging in place'

In focus groups held in Watertown for the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota, Boone said, the message was clear: “People want to stay in their communities.” She heard several reasons for that.

“People are going to work longer, either full- or part-time, because they want to or have to,” she said. “Some say to age 75.” Because many baby-boomer women – and men, too – have worked through the years, they’re wanting more time with their grandchildren rather than seeing them a couple of times a year. County residents say they have strong connections to their communities, friends, churches and doctors.

“They don’t want to pick up and move somewhere else,” she said. “It’s different” from the boomers’ parents’ generation. “Leading-edge boomers in the focus groups said they want to stay.”


Minnesota Department of Human Services

Focus group participants said the challenge to staying in their homes is that “they live in two-story houses,” Boone said. Most know that stairs can pose problems for people as they age. “The focus we’ve taken,” Boone said, “is keeping our residents.”  

That strategy includes several housing-related elements friendly to people as they age. For starters: a bedroom and a bathroom on the main level. The broader vision is for smaller clustered housing, “rather than lots of land,” Boone said. Add to that such universal design elements as no-step entries, wider-than-normal hallways and doorways and door handles with levers rather than doorknobs.

Business expos in the county have featured builders’ ideas for age-friendly housing, said Mary Hershberger-Thun, mayor of Victoria. “We’re also looking at various services” to help people age comfortably in their homes, she said.

CarFit a good fit

In this county that lacks the public-transportation infrastructure found in the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, focus group participants were asked how they define maintaining independence. “Unanimously, the answer was driving,” Boone said. And CarFit arrived in Carver County.

CarFit, a project of AAA, AARP and the American Association of Occupational Therapists, offers drivers age 65-plus an evaluation of how well they “fit” in their cars, can adjust the seats, reach the brake and use the seat belts.

“The biggest change is probably mirror adjustments to eliminate the blind spots,” she said. Each of the county’s major cities sponsored CarFit evaluations last year. The time seemed right. Considering projected growth in the county’s older population by 2030, “there will be four times as many drivers over 65 driving here on two-way roads.” A conference planned this spring for older drivers will focus on changes in the area’s road systems, she said. “Our goal is to keep people on the road.” 


  Photo provided by Katy Boone

A Carver County driver gets help adjusting his rear-view mirrors from CarFit technician Carol Buesgens of Chanhassen.

Another idea is improving “walkability” of the cities’ downtowns, so that people can walk to the grocery and the post office. A CURA study suggested building some appropriate housing downtown, Boone said, rather than “on the road on the way out of town.” An intriguing discovery emerged from the boomer focus groups: Almost everyone who participated was a bicyclist, Boone said. Participants proposed creating bike trails that, rather than being purely recreational, could take them to popular destinations, she said. “So they could bike to a restaurant for lunch or shopping.”       

The boomers (born from 1946 through 1964) are a very different group from their parents, Boone said. “Women working. Women driving. More professional jobs. More experience with group living, having lived in apartments and dorm rooms. There’s the ‘Golden Girls’ concept.” Some women talk about the idea of buying a house or a duplex together. “Co-housing could be an option for some,” she said.

Boone paused briefly, then, in a postulating mode, added, “I think the baby boomers will change the world if they don’t find what they want.”

Kay Harvey wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

Friday: Boomers begin to wonder: Who will take care of me?

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Comments (1)

Placement of senior housing

I am astounded that so many residential facilities for seniors are built out in the suburbs with no access to public transit. Having dealt with elderly relatives in the recent past, I looked at a number of options, and so many facilities, whether independent apartments, assisted living, or nursing homes, are in the middle of nowhere.

My own great-grandparents moved into such a facility in the early 1960s. To my childish eyes, it looked luxurious. My parents and others of their generation talked about how much more beautiful this place was than the gloomy, smelly nursing homes they had seen before.

But my great-grandmother was deeply unhappy. In her own home, she had enjoyed taking the bus and going places. Now she was stuck. No more just taking off and going shopping or to a movie or to a friend's house. After my great-grandfather died, she moved (I'm not sure who made the decision) to a residence in Minneapolis, one that was less luxurious but offered bus service at the door.

We don't want elderly people who are frail or disabled to keep on driving. Yet if one doesn't drive, those exurban senior residences are effective exile from ordinary life.

I hope that the companies that manage senior housing take this factor into consideration and place their facilities on bus lines in larger communities and within walking distance of downtown in smaller towns.