Pioneers' Homes a haven for Alaska's elderly

Excerpt from the Fairbanks News-Miner, March 19, 2012

by Sam Friedman

While giving a tour recently, Fairbanks Pioneers' Home administrator Vickie Wilson pointed out differences that she said separate the homes from senior housing in the Lower 48.

One difference is the effort to make residents feel they are in a home and not an institution, she said. That's done in part with small touches such as Alaskana artwork (some of it made by residents), a play area for visiting children and several house pets "” a dog and a bird were spotted on a recent walk-through but the home also has cats and has had visits from a reindeer and a pot-bellied pig.

The Fairbanks Pioneers' Home is now home to about 85 people with an average age of 89. Residents range in mobility from those that require 24-hour assistance to those whose abilities allow them to participate in house programs such as Fairbanks Summer Arts festival performances, an annual trip in the Riverboat Discovery and a train trip to Denali National Park.

The home also has an area for caring for people with dementia.

Having different levels of medical care under one roof is another big advantage of the Pioneers' Homes, Wilson said.

"In the Lower 48, there are places where if you can't take care of your pills yourself you have to move," she said.

The Fairbanks Pioneers' Home is the second-oldest of the six state-owned senior homes. The oldest, in Sitka, opened in 1913.

Alaska is one of only a handful of states that have state-operated housing for seniors, Wilson said.

Room and board at the Fairbanks home starts at $2,252 a month for a resident who does not need medical care. But as a state-operated facility, the Pioneers' Home accepts a combination of Medicaid, private payments and state funds, Wilson said.

The Fairbanks home, located on Eagan Way, is divided into three "neighborhoods" based on the medical needs of the resident: Moosewood, Homestead or Aurora neighborhoods. Rooms are fairly small with a house-owned bed, some shelves and enough room in which to get dressed comfortably. The rooms share adjoining bathrooms with a second room.

Neighborhoods have their own lounge areas and dining rooms. Residents can invite guests to meals, and during the holidays the kitchen sometimes makes more meals for guests than residents, Wilson said. Residents also sometimes have other special meals away from the holidays, such as a recent Chinese take-out night. An in-house hair salon was decorated with a Humphrey Bogart cardboard cutout as part of a classic Hollywood theme.

Becoming a resident of a Pioneers' Home takes some planning. To be eligible, applicants must be at least 65 years old. At 65, people can sign up to be interviewed and placed on an inactive waitlist to save a space at the home even if they do not have plans for when they might want to move in.

Joining the inactive waitlist is recommend because problems can arise when a person's health deteriorates and the person needs somewhere like the Pioneers' Home to live but finds that the active waitlist is three or four years long, Wilson said.

People who previously lived at home or with family come to the Pioneers' Home for a variety of reasons, Wilson said. Sometimes people have a fall or other health problem and come for the additional health services the home provides. Others move to the Pioneers' Home because they are lonely living alone.

"We've seen people improve when they get here just by the mobility or the stimulation," Wilson said. "You have to get dressed because you're having breakfast with people."

Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.