Coops for Senior Citizens Offers Carefree Retirement
By Darren Waggoner
For Gordon and Bonnie Jensen, leaving their past on the southern Minnesota farm they worked for a generation was akin to starting out like the fresh faced newlyweds they were in June 1953.Ê
"We looked forward, instead of looking back. It was a little frightening but we were ready to jump into it," Gordon said.Ê
The Jensens hadn't planned to leave their spread. After four decades, helping farm 765 acres until retirement, top soil was in their blood. Like many, they didn't take kindly to the idea of a nursing home.Ê
"That was always something for older folks," said Gordon, 76.
But, when approached about an alternative to the cumbersome farm or a health care facility, Gordon agreed to listen. It was time to make life easier for his wife, who has suffered a series of health problems.
The couple chose a two-bedroom abode at the Riverview Homestead Cooperative at the edge of nearby Springfield, Minn. The town of about 2,000 people lies between the "Little House on the Prairie" towns of Walnut Grove and Sleepy Eye in southern Minnesota.
"I had thought I was in better health; then it hit me, I'm nine years older than her, I could go first. She needed a place that would be easy to manage if I were to pass on," Gordon said. "Now she has that place and a lot of new friends to go with it."
In tiny towns across the upper Midwest, older Americans are flocking to cooperatively owned housing complexes like the 19-home Riverview built by the Homestead Housing Center.
Homestead, based in St. Paul, has been the pioneer in this movement. Its president, Terry McKinley, guesses there are more than 20 rural cooperatives for the elderly nationwide. Since January 1994, Homestead has started nine of them in Minnesota and Iowa, targeting towns with populations under 10,000 -- often much smaller.
"Many seniors are in places alone and aren't in the healthiest situations. Maybe they have to worry about stairs or are in a place where transportation is a hassle," McKinley said. "Most aren't interested in assisted living arrangements but would enjoy something to make living worry-free."
Cooperative housing can be found across the country, predominately east of the Mississippi River, but the strictly rural and senior bent is a movement that has taken hold in the Midwest in the last decade.
This summer six Homestead cooperatives are scheduled for construction in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin and 17 planned cooperatives soon could usher the program into Missouri, Kansas and South Dakota.
McKinley said housing cooperatives address a growing problem, one that is likely to worsen as baby boomers become seniors.
"People are living longer and healthier lives, so we have larger numbers of older people. We really have never dealt with that as a nation,"he said. "The whole history of senior care has been that people reach a certain age, get sick and die. But today people are outliving that. They are healthy and active and need somewhere to go that meets their needs."
Homestead is a non-profit group supported by 12 companies and agencies, including CENEX, Inc., Farmland Industries Inc. and Land O'Lakes, a cooperative agriculture and dairy supply group. Local sponsors are formed to push the program and provide matching funds with Homestead.
"Once everything is off the ground, we all step aside and the seniors take over operations," McKinley said. "They decide how much to pay the guy who mows the lawn and the person who clears the snow. They have complete control."
By their nature, cooperatives are for seniors who don't mind "cooperating" from time to time, said Carol Kappes, director of housing for The Ebenezer Society of Minneapolis, a Lutheran health care group and management agent for Homestead Cooperative of Grand Marais.
"If you're living in a cooperative, you're saying you're interested in being involved socially with other residents and you're willing to work for the benefit of the project," Kappes said. "Versus a condo where you may buy in with a very private lifestyle in mind."
The duties shared by owners are light -- planning the yearly budget, charting policies on guest room use and building improvements --but seniors who need special care may find a nursing home or live-in help a better choice.
Cliff Koele, however, says the 16-unit Homestead project in his hometown of Hull, Iowa, has kept his 84-year-old father out of a nursing home -- despite the fact that he suffers from Parkinson's disease.
Koele, a Hull realtor and insurance man, bought a home for his dad at the cooperative and is able to visit each morning for a cup of coffee.
"If we didn't have this, he would have had to move miles away to some nursing home just so he wouldn't be totally alone," Koele said. "This keeps someone near to check in on him, but doesn't take his freedom."
In Spirit Lake, Iowa -- a resort village surrounded by several lakes and a half-dozen state parks -- 64-year-old widow Ruth Boetcher was on the local board that helped form that town's 25-home Homestead cooperative.
Now she lives two blocks away from Dickinson County Memorial Hospital, where she volunteers, and across the street from Immanuel Lutheran Church, where she works part time as the secretary.
"My two grandchildren live a few miles away and can come stay with me and I have a lot more freedom to be a part of their lives. My life is trouble free without the worries of maintenance and upkeep on the home," said Boetcher, whose husband died nine years ago.
Homestead cooperatives are designed for people over age 55 but include residents as old as 100. Typical buyers are in their mid-to-late70s, and McKinley expects many residents to live in the cooperatives 20-plus years -- something Gordon Jensen expects to do.
"It's a relaxing time these days. We have freedom to do what we want: we can visit friends in the social areas or we can hibernate in our rooms," Jensen said. "A lot of us men are going to our workshop. We'rebuilding birdhouses to put on the grounds.
"The best part may be I'll never have to mow the lawn or shovel snow again unless I feel like it," he added. "That's been a real godsend."
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