DULUTH, Minn. - When Bob and Carole Lent built their small home on Park Point in 1975, they were in their 20s.
"We didn't think about stairs being a problem," said Bob, now 68, as the couple sat at the dining room in what they sometimes call their "new home" one day last week. "So we built a vertical house."
By 2014, the Lents, retired from their jobs for the Duluth public schools, were thinking differently. Although both were mobile and in good health, it was becoming difficult for some family members and friends to navigate the stairway from their entry to the main floor living space. Moreover, they wanted to remain in the property they loved long into the future.
Carole, 67, the photographer behind many of the "Shipping Traffic" photos that appear on Page A2 of the News Tribune, shared a book of photos she has taken through the house's picture window, which looks toward Lake Superior. "That's why we like it here," she said.
When they started, the Lents hadn't heard the term "aging in place," Bob said. But as baby boomers reach retirement age and beyond, more are looking for ways they can adapt to future limitations without having to downsize into an apartment or townhome. The idea generally is referred to as aging in place.
"For almost everybody, that would be their first choice," said Jane Hampton, referring to remaining in one's original home. "What we're looking at is the numbers of people going in that direction."
Hampton is part of an industry that has arisen to help homeowners plan to remain in their homes as they age, having founded her company, Brainerd-based Accessibility Design, in 1992.
The company, which works throughout the state, employs designers and "access specialists" such as Janalee Reineke Lyth, an occupational therapist in Duluth, to help homeowners determine what remodeling is needed and how to accomplish that.
"We get involved in a project when people know something is not working in their house, but they don't really know what to do about it," Hampton said.
Accessibility Design works with contractors who carry out the projects once they're designed. Among them is Litman Construction of Duluth. Sam Litman, who took over the business from his father, said he encourages clients to think about the future whenever they contemplate remodeling.
"A lot of people are afraid to pull that tub out and put the shower in because at this point they don't need to," Litman said. "But I try to do my due diligence by saying, 'Hey look, do you plan to stay here? Do you plan for this to be your forever home until someone carts you off?' "
Among other fixes that may be needed, according to Litman:
• A roll-in shower, "or at least a low-threshold shower."
• Enlarging doorways and hallways to make sure there's sufficient turning area for a wheelchair — typically a 5-foot-by-5-foot area, Litman said.
• Toilets that are higher than the conventional size, allowing an easier transition for someone who is in a wheelchair.
• Ramps, stairlifts or an elevator to allow someone using a wheelchair to get up and down.
• Grab bars — which no longer have to have an "industrialized" look — levers on doorways as opposed to knobs, single-handle faucets, easily graspable pulls on drawers.
Litman is just 35, but he already has practiced what he preaches.
"I built a home for myself in 2009," he said. "And when I did so I had in my mind that if this wasn't my forever home, what would others want? So I made every doorway, where possible, at least 32 inches wide. All the entry doors are 36 inches wide."
The front door of the Lents' home is 36 inches wide, expanded from 32, with ample room outside and inside in which to turn a wheelchair. There's a bathroom off of the entry, and a hallway leading to a bedroom envisioned, perhaps, as one day being occupied by a caregiver. The laundry room is off the hallway. A stairway leads up to the main floor, but a door between the bathroom and the bedroom leads to an elevator.
Except for the laundry room, all of that is new, added when the couple renovated their home between October of 2014 and May of 2015.
"We saw our friends and family not being able to navigate the stairs as well," Bob said. "My thinking was, 'How can I make this house more accessible?' "
His original plan was to bring a driveway up to the main floor and install a carport there, thus providing easy access to their essential living spaces: bedroom, kitchen, bathroom.
But when he consulted with Heather Hiner of Hiner Home Designs, she suggested the earthmoving and landscaping cost for their idea would be so significant that the Lents could put in in elevator for not much more. She drew up plans requiring an addition totaling 12 feet to one side of the house. It would cut into the side yard, from their perspective, but into the front yard, from the city's. And it would violate the 25-foot front-yard setback requirement by 6 feet.
The Lents sought a variance from the city planning commission but were turned down — a decision that still rankles. The street in front of their home is a little-used stretch of gravel, they note, and their proposed addition wouldn't have set them any closer to the street than houses on either side. Moreover, they'd gone to their neighbors, none of whom had any objections to their plan.
They were told they didn't face "practical difficulty" because they weren't handicapped, Carole explained.
"We would like people to be able to plan for the future without having to demonstrate a need for handicapped accessibility at that moment," she said. "If you wait until you need it, it's too late."
Hiner reworked the plans so only a 6-foot addition was required, but it meant essentially gutting the rest of the house, the Lents said. They declined to say how much they spent on the project, but did say the required revision doubled the cost.
Remodeling costs vary widely, Litman said.
An elevator can cost as much as $20,000 for a lift with sides to $30,000 for a full-scale elevator, he said, and that doesn't include work on the site to accommodate the elevator. Remodeling a bathroom typically ranges from $12,000 to $25,000 depending on what needs to be done, he said.
"It's not cheap," Litman said, speaking of remodeling as a whole. "Even materials. I've watched materials go up 30, 40 percent in 14 years."
A 'new home'
In the process of remodeling, the Lents gave their home a new look, replacing the original cedar siding with maintenance-free LP siding made in Two Harbors. The changes were so thorough it's not surprising the Lents refer to their "old home" and their "new home," although it's really the same structure.
They paid attention to details, such as ensuring there would be adequate room to turn a wheelchair in the bedroom and hallways and to accommodate a wheelchair user in the shower. They were careful, Bob said, to not make it "look" like an accessible home. A grab bar next to a toilet is "disguised" as a toilet paper holder, and one in the shower also serves as a shampoo and soap caddy.
It all required a major investment in money and time and some bureaucratic hassles, and resulted in wholesale changes. But there's a bottom line, Bob said: "Anybody who comes to the house can access our living space. And that wasn't true (before)."
The situation the Lents faced is common in Duluth, said Hampton, whose company is involved in about 170 projects a year statewide.
"Up there in Duluth where you're built on a mountain?" she said, engaging in a bit of hyperbole. "Well, we've had some challenges. Not only is it a mountain, but it's a mountain of granite ... And the homes you guys have up in Duluth are very vertical."
Both Hampton and Litman said in some cases, relocating can be the best option.
The Lents noted the irony of the fact that as some friends and family looked at downsizing, they expanded their home, which originally was about a thousand square feet. But they never considered anything else.
"We don't want to leave Park Point," Bob said. "We don't want to leave the lake. We love it down here."
Where to get help
Your home needs changes so you or a family member can continue to live in it, but you can’t afford to do it on your own.
There may be help, according to Stephanie Lundgren, St. Louis County Aging and Adult Disabilities supervisor, although many variables come into play.
If you live in St. Louis County, you can set up what’s known as an MnCHOICES Assessment by calling the county’s intake team at (218) 726-2366. The county has a team of social workers and public health nurses to complete an assessment, which is free. They work closely with the financial team to determine what sort of financial assistance you might be eligible for.
For those 65 and older, the primary sources of financial help are Elderly Waiver, which is a federal Medicaid waiver program; and Alternative Care, a state-funded program that supports limited home and community-based services. If you’re eligible, case managers will work with you to review your options, coordinate services and stay within a budget, according to Lundgren.
If you’re not eligible for either program, the case managers also are well-versed in other possible sources.
Minnesotans outside of St. Louis County can ask for a MnCHOICES assessment by contacting the Senior LinkAge Line at (800) 333-2433, the Disability Line at (866) 333-2466 or the county or tribe where you live.