Two words — “Oh, yeah!” — are all it takes for Ruth Babcock to know the importance of what she does.
That’s the enthusiastic welcome Babcock receives from a Soundview Assisted Living resident every time Babcock walks in the door. In addition to Soundview, Babcock also owns and operates Main Street Assisted Living and Kachemak Way Assisted Living, each with a maximum capacity of five residents.
“I was working for my third or fourth construction company, bookkeeping, and my co-worker and I were going, ‘What are we going to do next?’ She came back from lunch one day and said a friend had suggested opening an assisted living facility. I thought, ‘My gosh, I could do that,’” said Babcock.
When the construction job ended, Babcock took certified nursing assistant classes and, in September 2002, opened her first facility. She opened the second in 2006, the third in 2008, and has a total 20 full- and part-time employees.
On sunny summer afternoons, flowers bordering the ramp and deck at the Soundview facility frame a view of Kachemak Bay. A note on the door asks visitors to be mindful of cats living at the address. In the living room, two residents watch an afternoon television program. In the kitchen, the arrival of a new cooking aid stirs excitement.
“It’s a great business,” said Babcock. “The residents have marvelous stories about how they got here, what happened to them, what they’ve done.”
It also is a challenging business, the biggest challenge being “the state and feds trying to get their stuff figured out,” said Babcock. Assisted living facilities are licensed by the state of Alaska. Babcock’s monthly rate per resident is a little under $6,000. Some residents’ care is paid by Medicaid; some have financial resources to self-pay.
In the past, Babcock had a waiting list of individuals wanting to move in. She currently doesn’t and sees the need for assisted living facilities increasing “just because people are living longer and not necessarily living healthier.”
In 2010, the city of Homer’s population was 4,781; in 2010 it was 5,003; in 2015 it had risen to 5,123, according to Alaska Department of Labor statistics. In 2010, the state anticipated “that the number of seniors will increase dramatically over the next decade.”
The most recent statistics bear out that prediction: between 2010 and 2015 the number of people aged 55 to 65 jumped from 86,909 or 12 percent of the overall population, to 98,713 or 13 percent.
Erica Neeland, who opened Happy Valley Assisted Living in February 2017, agrees there’s an increasing need. She recently received a phone call from Anchorage looking for a vacancy on the Kenai Peninsula.
After Neeland’s youngest child began school, Neeland enrolled in certified nursing assistant classes. While doing clinicals at South Peninsula Hospital Long Term Care, she discovered she was “where I was supposed to be. It was almost like a calling.”
In October 2016, she and her husband John bought property in Happy Valley and began transforming an existing building into a facility with room for eight residents. They currently have four and are limited to no more than five pending upgrades to a sprinkler system.
Happy Valley Assisted Living’s 40 acres has a farm-like setting. Horses run across the field. Clucking chickens provide a pleasant background sound. A small band of mischievous-looking piglets draws smiles from both Neeland and residents.
Neeland and her six employees provide 24-hour awake staff and transportation. According to practice runs done by Anchor Point Emergency Medical Services, the home is only 15 minutes away from emergency medical support. Her monthly rate for residents is between $4,800 and $5,500.
She credited Babcock for helping her get started and expressed appreciation to others who have run assisted living facilities in the past and Brian Sherbondy, owner and operator of Aldergrove Assisted Living near Homer, for offering support.
“When you’re coming into this, you have no idea what the state wants. … There were often times when I said, ‘What am I doing and how am I going to get through this?’ But it’s worth it. I have all four residents extremely happy,” Neeland said.
Sherbondy opened Aldergrove Assisted Living five years ago in a log home former owners used for a bed and breakfast. From the Denny Lane parking area, a walkway through a tunnel of alders leads to the home’s front door, and then zigzags to a deck and the yard below. Inside, sunlight and views of the surrounding forest flood the living and dining area, adding to the cozy Alaska-type atmosphere created by log construction.
Sherbondy grew up in a family that ran assisted living facilities in Washington State and Montana. After his father moved to Alaska, he encouraged Sherbondy to relocate and open a facility in the area. In addition to Aldergrove, Sherbondy owns and operates Pathways Assisted Living in north Kenai.
Aldergrove has a maximum capacity of five residents. Sherbondy lives on site and does most of the work, assisted by two part-time employees. His monthly rate ranges from $5,000-$7,000. Echoing Neeland, Sherbondy said becoming licensed proved challenging and lengthy.
The licensing process begins by making an appointment with Craig Baxter, the state of Alaska residential licensing program manager in Anchorage.
“Come directly to us to get licensing information or to figure out how to get licensed. We also have a two-day orientation program that everyone is encouraged to take,” Baxter said. “It can be quite daunting to someone who’s never done it before.”
Scheduling free pre-screening with the Independent Living Center is the starting point for individuals finding themselves or a loved one in need of day-to-day living assistance.
“The options we give are based on what individuals’ needs are and what their wantsare,” said Joyanna Geisler, director of the ILC in Homer. In terms of how those identified needs are eventually paid for, “either somebody has to have adequate financial resources or be eligible for Medicaid or for general relief, another kind of state assistance,” she said.
The state’s requirement for a pre-screening done by an Alaska Resource and Disability Resource Center is new this year. Homer’s ILC has been identified as such a site.
“The great thing is we can explain the options that people have in the community that they want to live in and stay in,” said Geisler. “We certainly don’t determine eligibility, but we can provide information and ask questions to give information about eligibility.”
Meeting with an independent care coordinator is the next step in determining and receiving services. The four care coordinators in the Homer area have formed Southern Peninsula Care Coordinator Network, serving seniors, adults with physical and development disabilities, individuals with developmental disabilities and children with complex conditions from Nanwalek to Kasilof.
“A care coordinator basically helps individuals navigate the system that’s available through the state of Alaska to get the care they need,” said care coordinator Sheryl Beckler. “Homer has a nice variety of choices of how to get the help you need.”
Laurie Deakins, of Care Coordination Resource and another Homer care coordinator, urged promptness when exploring resources and eligibility for programs.
“People should definitely act fast because it is a long process and can take three to six months,” said Deakins.
About to celebrate her 60th birthday, Babcock also is looking ahead at how she wants to spend the rest of her life. Kachemak Way, Main Street and Soundview assisted living facilities are for sale, and Babcock dreams of becoming “a gentleman farmer” in the company of the goats, pigs, chickens, geese and bull with whom she and her husband share their land off Diamond Ridge Road.
Until then, however, there’s the “Oh, yeah!” greeting at Soundview, reminding Babcock of the importance of providing assistance for those in need.
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.