At nearly 93, Nellie Fischbach didn’t take the easy road to her new Murphy Bros. home. Yet the long-time Brooklyn Park resident’s journey serves as a poignant reminder of what independent senior living can look like when you combine a strong will and nearby support.
Nellie lost her legs to diabetes years ago and much of her vision to macular degeneration more recently. Then, last year, the City of Brooklyn Park took her family farm to construct the Highway 169/CR30 interchange. She and her late husband, Bud, had built the old homestead with their own hands about 64 years ago and raised seven children there. “I laid every piece of hardwood flooring,” she recently recalled.
After she was forced from property that had been a fixture in the region’s farming legacy for nearly a century, Nellie wanted no part of a senior community. So she hired us to build her a house just four lots down from her son Charlie, daughter-in-law Juli and their two kids, who had pledged their support. Although nothing could replace the old farmhouse, we took time to understand what really mattered to Nellie. By integrating her few personal priorities with solid universal design principles, we created a safe space that met her special needs without compromising resale appeal. It was a team effort.
Nellie had liked to spend time at the table in her little kitchen. It enabled her to sit close enough to see her beloved Twins on a small TV. And a simple plastic laundry basket kept her “files” handy underneath. We created a special nook for the table (and the TV and basket) in her new kitchen and made sure the dining room was large enough for her big table with both leaves for family gatherings. “Every birthday, Christmas, Easter and anything else that came up, we gathered around that table,” she recalled.
We also accommodated her request for an accessible bathroom right off the kitchen. But our Certified Aging in Place (CAP) training steered many of the other design decisions. Here are some of the special features:
- Recessed the cabinet under the kitchen sink so she can roll her wheelchair closer and place things in the dishwasher.
- Set the counters at 34- rather than the standard 36-in. to enhance her reach
- Installed the microwave shelf and wall oven lower than normal for access while seated.
- Used 36-in. doors for easy wheelchair passage.
- Fit the master bath with a curb-free roll-in shower and grab bars
- Kept the tile and laminate floor surfaces flush
- Poured the concrete entry walk right up to the main entry threshold with no stairs or ramps
- Installed a speaker doorbell so she could speak with someone at the door from her telephone handset.
- Integrated a decorative gate at the open basement stairway so the wheelchair could not topple down.
“It isn’t like going into a house that’s already built and you just make do,” Nellie told me. “This was built around me. I see so many special things that you did.” One of my own best memories was bringing several oversized paint swatches so she could pick favorite colors from a safe pallet in spite of her declining vision.
Still, Charlie and Juli may have scored the biggest hit when they surprised her with two 55-in. HD televisions, one for the family room and another for her bedroom. “I told them I didn’t want a television in the bedroom because I go there to sleep, but now I love to be able to watch the big TV in my new comfortable bed, especially when the Twins play San Francisco or Seattle and the games go late,” she confessed. “Sometimes I fall asleep watching the news and wake up at midnight, but they don’t miss me,” she joked. She also likes Cash Cab and Dancing with the Stars.
And how do you put a value on her grandson, Cody, being able to walk down the street to see his grandma or practice his puck shots against the heavy canvas target in her wide open basement. “I don’t mind the noise. As long as I hear him banging around down there I know he is not getting into trouble. He’ll do anything for me,” Nellie beamed.
Meanwhile, Charlie or Juli visit every morning and evening to help Nellie into and out of bed and to bring her meals. “They don’t just live down the street; they are here all the time. Juli loves my kitchen,” she said.
When I arrived at Nellie’s on the recent chilly April 1 morning, a spectacular rooster pheasant climbed the dirt pile just beyond the large, sunny southwest window in her family room, a reminder of the birds that had called her family’s cornfields home just half a mile away. I assured her the loader would finish the grading as soon as the ground thawed and dried, but she was already ahead of me.
“Charlie wants to plant all tomatoes. Says I can water them from the house,” she offered. There also was talk of Charlie and a friend adding a small deck off the dining room. But, truth be told, Nellie was even keener on the promise of central air conditioning this summer. “I don’t like the heat. I would rather be inside with the air,” she explained.
Then again, she was pleased she would watch the Minnesota Twins season opener on one of the big TVs from the comfort of her new home rather than in chilly Target Field that afternoon. “No way,” she said when asked if she would rather be at the game. But she hoped someone would bring her one of the new Homer Blankies to add to her Twins memorabilia collection.
Nellie’s road to her new home was as windy as it was long, but she had a knack for being at the right place at the right time. She was born in Fargo, but the family moved to Hill City, MN, when she was a young girl. That’s where she fell in love with baseball. “We had a field right by our house. The boys from town would come to play ball. It was my field so I got to play too whether they liked it or not. And dad saw to it that I had a proper glove,” she remembered. As a young woman, she served as a program director for the Red Cross in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. “Our job was to organize tournaments to keep (Army) boys’ minds off the girls in town.”
Nellie graduated from Bemidji State with an English major and science minor. She had wanted to major in science but was told that no one would hire a woman to teach science. She first taught junior high English on the Iron Range. When the family moved to Bellingham, WA, a couple of years later she lucked out. “It was a Dutch school. I got the job accidentally because the teacher before me had a nervous breakdown. So you know it was ‘really easy’ kids I had,” she smiled. She still has fond memories of the beautiful fields of tulips and daffodils. “They shipped bulbs all over the world,” she said.
When Nellie returned to Minnesota to live with her brother, it was too late to get a teaching post for fall so she took a clerk’s job at the Forestry Office near Hill City. That’s where she met her late husband, Bud. Seems he was afraid the truckload of potatoes he was driving from Deer River might freeze before he reached the warehouse in the Twin Cities. He stopped at the Forestry Office to check the temperature. Nellie took him to the big thermometer outside and so began their road together. After they were married they built the little farmhouse in Brooklyn Park. She continued to farm the land and sell corn and Christmas trees with Charlie long after Bud died.
Although the City forced the move, it worked with us to make the Nellie project a success. They plotted the lot ahead of schedule so we could build within sight of Charlie and Juli’s home. And the inspectors helped us keep the project moving. Everything was about getting it done on time for Nellie.
Although there still are unpacked boxes in the garage and basement after a month, the place already has transitioned from house to home. Of course, Nellie deserves all the credit for that.