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Experts Preparing for Rush on Senior-Friendly Housing in Wheeling Area

Photo by Nora Edinger Wheeling’s stellar architecture may entice young families who are still in growth mode, but it is not necessarily what aging residents — including the large Baby Boomer contingent — are looking for, according to area housing experts. But, they say, there are plenty of other options ranging from aging-in-place remodels to rentals designed with the needs of seniors in mind.

WHEELING — As of the 2020 census, more than 22% of Wheeling’s population is 65 or older — 6,100 or so residents inside the city limits alone. With Baby Boomers (now aged 57 to 75) poised to flood that demographic in short order, the demand for senior-friendly housing will be hotter than ever, according to local experts who are already preparing for the rush.

Their viewpoints range from keeping a current home livable to downsizing to the possibility of entering a retirement community that ranges from independent living to long-term care.

STAYING PUT

There is already a safety net that can help seniors remain in their own homes — even as their need for assistance increases, according to Paula Calvert, director of Family Service-Upper Ohio Valley. One element of a community network that also includes for-profit in-home care, Family Service provides Meals on Wheels, medical transportation, housekeeping, hygiene help and other services to allow just that.

But, Calvert noted there are other simple things many seniors can do on their own to make their current home more friendly. She suggested a serious look at safety — beginning with small changes such as reducing clutter, loose rugs and contact with pets that could lead to a debilitating fall.

Calvert urges people who are aging in place to also plan ahead for a time when they may no longer be able to live independently — and to share those plans with family members. She suggests lots of options be on the table, adding that some seniors she knows have done well moving in with a sibling who is experiencing the same challenges.

Whatever the plan, she encourages seniors to be realistic and work for their own good well ahead of actual need.

“When that moment comes and you’re not ready for it,” she said of a need for assistance or a different type of housing, “it becomes an uncomfortable environment.”

Becky Padden of Huffner Contracting of Wheeling said seniors frequently approach that business in a desire to go as big as needed to avoid such discomfort. They’re asking, “what can you come out and do now so we can stay in our own home?”

Padden said bathrooms are a big issue – both in terms of fall prevention and independent access.

“A lot of people reach the point where they can’t lift their leg to get into the tub,” she said.

The contractor has a variety of responses, she said. Sometimes grab bars or an increase in toilet height will do the job. Other times, tubs are replaced with walk-in or even wheel-in shower stalls.

“In bathrooms, you really need, like, a 5-foot circle if you end up in a wheelchair – a lot of people wind up turning a bedroom into a bathroom,” Padden said.

Elsewhere in homes, Padden said some clients are having doorways enlarged to 36 inches to better accommodate walkers and wheelchairs or they are installing a second railing in stairways so there is a place to grab on each side.

A few clients are going even bigger, she said of a local trend in building first-floor additions that include a bedroom, bathroom and, at times, a laundry area relocated from the basement.

“We’ve got all these gorgeous old homes. But, as you age, they’re not accessible,” Padden said, noting that the company now recommends its new-construction customers build with accessibility in mind regardless of their age.

MOVING OUT

Missy Ashmore of Kennen & Kennen Realtors of Wheeling would like to see some more of that kind of new construction.

She said the small, single-story, step-free, low-maintenance homes that a growing number of Wheeling area residents hope to find as they age simply don’t exist in large numbers. This is true, she said, even though would-be buyers include people who want a minimal home in Wheeling but spend part of the year in a warmer climate and those who are willing to drop $300,000 to $400,000 on a more upscale house that will let them age in place.

The market reality, however, is an abundance of multi-story older homes, she said, noting only 20 of the 430 Wheeling homes sold through Realtors in 2020 were built in the last 20 years.

That, Ashmore said, means that would-be downsizers need to plan far ahead of their need and prepare for a buyer market that’s a bit like musical chairs. “Wheeling has an aging population. Many buyers are competing for the same types of housing, making the process of finding a home take longer than expected.”

Ashmore noted a number of older clients are simply selling – shedding a large home in favor of renting. And, that would be where another element of Wheeling’s residential world comes in.

Donald Kirsch, administrator for the Welty system of senior housing, believes there will be enough independent-living and assisted-living rental units and long-term care options in the city to handle the Baby Boomers who no longer want the burden of owning and maintaining their own home.

That includes those Boomers who are already here and then some, Kirsch said, adding he has noticed a recent uptick in Wheeling natives returning to live out their senior years in their hometown. There have also been incomers who are aware of the senior housing potential in the city and have relocated here for that reason, he said.

Noting that the Welty system – which offers a continuum of senior housing ranging from apartments and townhomes to nursing home care – isn’t the only option in the city, Kirsch said Wheeling is actually better off than many cities of similar size. He said there are rentals for various income and physical-ability levels and in various neighborhoods.

And, unlike the city’s historic homes, he noted senior-designated housing is generally accessible and more. Even in Welty’s independent-living apartments and townhomes, for example, he said there is an emergency call system that’s monitored 24 hours a day, monthly housekeeping and the routine presence of safety features like bathroom grab bars and walk-in showers.

“They’re all specifically designed for the needs of older people,” Kirsch said. “We wanted to make sure our residents could stay there as long as physically possible.”

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