Growing senior population faces housing hurdles
On any given afternoon, the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center pulses with activity.
Inside the bright front lobby, people play card games, read, catch up with friends and family or exchange jokes with senior center staff. For 89-year-old Gloria Fierro and dozens of other Chugiak-Eagle River residents, the senior center is home.
Fierro moved in nearly a decade ago, transplanted to Chugiak from California.
“I went from the ridiculous to the sublime,” she said, laughing.
It was a Thursday afternoon in late May, and Fierro sat in an armchair in the lobby, waiting for a ride to the store. Much of her family still lives in California, she said, but she had a son who’d lived in Alaska for years. He convinced her to follow.
“I was already a widow, and as I got older, he thought I should be closer to him,” she said.
In Chugiak, she’s part of the fastest-growing senior population in the country.
Alaska’s per-capita senior population growth has led the nation for seven years and counting, according to the Alaska Commission on Aging’s FY 2016 annual report. Between 2004 and 2014, Alaska was one of only three states to see the number of residents age 65 and above increase by 50 percent or more.
As the numbers climb, a growing number of Alaska seniors grapple with an ongoing issue: Housing.
“We have a waiting list almost everywhere,” said Linda Hendrickson, executive director of the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.
The senior center offers several types of housing, including 20 affordable-rent apartments and 43 independent living apartments. As of late May, there were about 60 people on waiting lists for both. The state-operated Pioneer Homes has a wait list, too. In 2016, more than 360 applicants had their names on the list, according to the annual ACoA report. For senior/disabled housing built by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, the waitlist topped 870.
Growth outpaces new construction
In 2014, Cook Inlet Housing Authority announced the grand opening of the Coronado Park Senior Village, a 56-unit apartment complex in Eagle River. Further up the Old Glenn Highway, the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center is currently working to develop another 19 two-bedroom duplexes on an adjacent 7.2 acre lot, Hendrickson said.
Accessible, affordable housing is “a continuing challenge,” according to the Alaska Commission on Aging.
At the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, the Assisted Living Program is the exception to the wait list. It’s complicated, Hendrickson said.
“The empty rooms are not because there isn’t a need,” she said. “There’s a desperate need.”
But potential residents face steep barriers. The private pay cost of assisted living is more than $6,000 per month, Hendrickson said. To qualify for a Medicaid waiver, people must show three diagnoses that require full-time medical help.
Then, occasionally, the senior center has to turn people away, Hendrickson said. Because the assisted living program operates with unlicensed staff, they’re restricted from accepting residents with certain advanced conditions.
“It’s kind of convoluted, because we have the availability, but when (applicants) are assessed, they have to fit within that criteria and have the money or get on the waiver,” Hendrickson said.
No easy answers
Mary Johnson, 82, originally moved into the assisted living program with her husband, Milt, a little more than five years ago, she said.
Before that, they’d lived in East Anchorage, then Fort Collins, Colorado, and other places in the Lower 48, Johnson said. They’d raised children and run cafes and owned a little bed and breakfast before eventually, in 2004, moving to Alaska to be closer to some of those children, now grown.
In 2011, Johnson’s husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she said.
Their daughter helped them look for a home and they moved out to Chugiak. Milt passed away three years later, Johnson said.
After that, she moved into another apartment in the senior center.
“My son says he’d like to buy a house where he can put an apartment in for me, but I don’t see that coming,” she said one May afternoon, working in the coffee shop in the senior center lobby. “I mean, it’s a dream.”
Currently, rent eats up most of her monthly income – approximately $1,000 in Social Security payments and senior benefits from the State of Alaska, she said. She said she’s gradually working through her savings. She tries not to worry about it.
“But it’s a concern,” Johnson said.
The senior center reaches some of them through a meal delivery service and outreach nurse, the executive director said. Even with the outreach and the specialized programs and the advocacy groups, though, people can still fall through the cracks.
Over the next 15 years alone, the number of Alaskans living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to nearly triple, the Alaska Commission on Aging reported. The senior population is expected to keep growing through 2030, when nearly 25 percent of Alaskans will be seniors, according to state projections.
Only a fraction of Alaska seniors live in specialized complexes like Coronado Park or the senior center apartments. Only some have families in state.
“You’d be surprised – there are a lot of seniors living alone, and with no extended family help,” Hendrickson said. “I find it more difficult for those that don’t have family: Where do they go?”
Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]