OurLife: Builders help seniors who want to ‘age in place’

By Sue Webber

Contributing writer

Shawn Nelson
Shawn Nelson

Shawn Nelson owns New Spaces, a remodeling firm in Burnsville. But he also holds a certified “aging in place” specialist designation at the Builders Association of the Twin Cities.

As Baby Boomers flood the market, Nelson said, builders are paying more attention to their housing needs. “People want to stay in their homes and we see more builders building projects to meet that need,” Nelson said. “It’s a conversation to have before you become a senior citizen. Builders have remained very attuned to it.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of adding grab bars in the shower, or widening doorways, Nelson said.

“Builders are building homes with wider hallways, to accommodate the need for a wheelchair in the future,” he said.

A number of houses are slab on grade: one level with no basement, he said. “Seniors want to avoid tripping or falling hazards,” he said.

People of all ages and abilities are gravitating toward better lighting, taking out sunken living rooms to avoid the possibility of falling, raising dishwashers, and using drawers to store plates and bowls, so there’s no need to reach up to put them away.

“We first heard about those [changes] 10 years ago, and now it’s gaining momentum,” Nelson said. “Ten years ago it was specific to senior citizens. Now it’s talked about more widely with new construction.”

Burnsville-based New Spaces designed an American with Disabilities Act-compliant bathroom for a client. (Submitted photo)
Burnsville-based New Spaces designed an American with Disabilities Act-compliant bathroom for a client. (Submitted photo)

Nelson has been in the construction business for 30 years. “I’m a second-generation remodeler,” he said. I’ve been doing it since junior high, and now 19 years since I got out of college. I bought out my parents’ business. We have nine employees.”

At the Builders Association, Nelson said, “I help teach a three-day class. We had 30 people in the last class. My portion is the third day, when we talk about business management.”

Jason Myrlie, with J. Carsten Remodeling in Inver Grove Heights, said his firm has worked for a lot of older couples who are remodeling or adapting their homes so they can continue to live independently. Often those conversations begin as soon as their high school children leave home, Myrlie said.

“We do a lot of condo work,” he said. “A lot of it is kitchen and bath remodeling, like adding grab bars. A couple of clients have talked about putting in a walk-in tub.”

Communities for a Lifetime Initiative in Dakota County

Jess Luce, program manager for Dakota County Public Health’s Communities for a Lifetime Initiative said the initiative focuses on older adults and aging Baby Boomers, but, he added, “The concept benefits other age groups, too.”

For example, he referred to Silvernest, an online roommate matching service for Baby Boomers and empty-nesters.

Luce noted that nearly 90 percent of people 65 and over want to stay in their homes for as long as possible and believe their current residence is where they will always live.

By 2020, the number of people age 65 and older in Dakota County is projected to nearly double its 2010 figure. By 2030, the Minnesota Department of Human Services predicts that the number will triple. However, for aging in place to happen, their community and service environments must be accommodating.

The Dakota County Community Development Agency’s Senior Housing Program provides affordable one- and two-bedroom apartments to seniors age 55 and over. There are currently 20 buildings located throughout Dakota County.

The county works with individuals that have a disability or financial need through waiver services (Elderly Waiver), and an Alternative Care program to help pay for aging in place services, such as home modifications.

By 2030, there will be more people age 65 and older in Minnesota than elementary middle and high school combined. But an estimated 28 percent of Minnesota’s Baby Boomers may not have sufficient resources to cover their retirement expenses, the website said.

“Boomers have very different expectations from their parents’ generation in terms of work, housing, activities and the services they desire,” the website said.

Access Solutions offers 10 simple universal design tips for seniors:


Aging in Place is the ability to live in one’s own home and community, wherever that might be, for as long as safely, confidently and comfortably possible. Livability may be enhanced and extended through the incorporation of services and features, such as universal design.

Universal Design is the design of all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation without the need for adaption or specialized design. It is the idea of making things comfortable and convenient for as many different people at as many stages of life as possible.

Homes for a Lifetime – Outreach Project

Access Solutions and MAAA (Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging) have partnered to provide information and outreach to consumers and to provide resources and support to older adults to continue living independently by implementing simple, cost-effective home modifications and/or features to lower the risk of falls and promote active living. The purpose is to provide ideas and resources on how to make their living space safe and livable.


The ourLife writers and editors can be reached at [email protected].