Due to a shortage of assisted living homes, some of Southeast Alaska’s aging residents can’t stay in their home communities. Residences in Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and Petersburg provide assistance to seniors needing help with daily activities, such as cooking, dressing and medication management.
As part of the CoastAlaska series Aging Southeast, we examine how the region isn’t keeping up with the demand for assisted living, and that demand is only expected to grow.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Jacque Farnsworth and Jack Brandt play piano and sing at the state-run Juneau Pioneers’ Home. A number of residents seated in a semi-circle of couches and chairs in front of the piano join in. They have music stands in front of them so they can follow along. A few play maracas.
Down the hall, Irene Cashen sits in a recliner watching TV. The 87-year-old moved in last March and doesn’t miss living alone.
“Look at me. I have my room over there and I do beading. I could do things by myself. I could come over here in my lounge and watch news and go out in the other room and there’s always something,” she said.
Group activities scheduled for later that day include a history talk, card games, exercise called “Fun & Fit” and more music. Cashen can join in or do her own thing.
“I made up my own mind to come in because I know I have beginning Alzheimer’s and I know about it and I don’t want my children to have to take care of me at home,” she said. “I can take care of myself here and it’s been a wonderful experience.”
Cashen has spent almost her whole life in Juneau. Kids, grandkids, great grandkids also live here. It’s where she wants to remain, and the home means she can.
That’s not the case for many of Southeast Alaska’s senior citizens. The demand outweighs supply and many communities in the region don’t offer any assisted living options.
The region’s geography – and its rapidly aging population – creates challenges that don’t exist in more populated parts of the state.
“We’re not connected, so if somebody from Prince of Wales needs help, they’re basically giving up their home and having to move and may never go back,” said Dee Wright.
She runs The Manor in Ketchikan, the only licensed assisted living home in Southeast run by a private individual. She said some of its dozen residents are from Prince of Wales Island, Metlakatla, Sitka and Juneau.
She said people who can’t find placement in Southeast often have to leave.
“There are people up north and Down South that could come home if we have the housing,” she said.
Haines and Petersburg also have assisted living homes, and Sitka and Ketchikan have
Pioneers’ Homes. Altogether, they house about 210 older adults. All have long waiting lists.
Julie Sande is the administrator at the Ketchikan Pioneers’ Home.
“The calls that I’m fielding, at this point, I’m saying to people: ‘if you haven’t applied to the Pioneer Home and you’re 86 years old and you need to move in right now, there’s the possibility that I will not be able to serve you in your lifetime,’ and that’s very hard to say,” Sande said. “For individuals who just get on the waitlist, it can be years before they move to the top of my list.”
In Juneau, a nonprofit is working to build a new assisted living community to meet some of the need.
Senior Citizens Support Services Inc. President Sioux Douglas is among those tired of seeing people leave because of the shortage of assisted living options.
“That’s the last thing we want to have happen in our community is to send our loved ones Outside,” she said. “They want to age here and they want to die here.”
Douglas expects residents to come from all over Southeast, with most from Juneau.
She said the nonprofit has secured land in Vintage Park in Juneau’s populous Mendenhall Valley, close to amenities. The project would have about 90 apartment-like units with a projected monthly cost between $5,000 and $7,000.
One of the major hurdles is finalizing the financing. Douglas said it could cost up to $30 million.
“The biggest message to the people in Southeast Alaska right now is just knowing and feeling confident that this project will get completed,” she said. “We will do this. We’ll have it available.”
Back at the Juneau Pioneers’ Home, Irene Cashen said she’s happy she chose to move into assisted living. Her mother had lived in the Pioneers’ Home in Sitka, so she knew it was a good option. And she thinks others will make a similar choice, if they can.
“It’s fun. It’s real life and it’s still your life,” she said. “You’re not taking away from your own children’s lives. I see them as much as I did before and they don’t have to worry about me.”
A new assisted living community in Juneau could be complete as soon as fall 2017. The Manor in Ketchikan also hopes to build a new assisted living home that could house up to 28 people.
This report is part of a series CoastAlaska stations have produced about seniors in Southeast Alaska. Read and hear more reports in our Aging Southeast series.