Area's economy matures with aging population

Kenai Peninsula becoming popular spot for retirees to 'age in place'

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005


  Kate Gelinas delivers a hot meal from the Kenai Senior Citizens Center's Meals on Wheels program to a senior living in Kenai. The average age continues to advance on the Kenai Peninsula. Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

Kate Gelinas delivers a hot meal from the Kenai Senior Citizens Center's Meals on Wheels program to a senior living in Kenai. The average age continues to advance on the Kenai Peninsula.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

As the Kenai Peninsula experiences a shift to the oldest population it has ever seen, services for that population expand, as well.

Since 1980, the number of retirement-aged residents on the peninsula has grown steadily. Overall Alaska now ranks second highest in the nation for elderly population behind Nevada.

As of July 2003, the population of the Kenai Peninsula Borough was estimated at about 51,220. The 55-and-over population makes up 18.7 percent of that figure, or about 9,565. That's up from the 2000 census figure of 7,737 and significantly higher than the 4,527 counted in 1990. Economists suggest that part of the reason for this population trend is more aging residents are choosing to stay when they retire.

According to Rachael Craig, Kenai Senior Citizens Center director, most seniors are enrolled in the Choice Waiver Program, a state program administered through Medicaid, that allows seniors to age in place.

Craig said this is sharply less expensive than being in a long-term care facility, which can cost at least $400 per day. She said most aging seniors want to stay in their own homes toward the end of their lives, in part due to lower costs.

"There is a care coordination service program under the Choice Waiver Program to help with in-house care costs," she said. "Seniors get a health assessment which is based on nursing home care. They have to meet Medicaid qualifications. The care plan is based through different agencies and will provide for meals, chores, transportation and whatever a senior may need."

Steve Ashman, director of the Division of Seniors and Disability Services for Alaska, said although the programs are good, the concern is they are income-based, leaving a gap of middle-class senior citizens potentially unprotected or bearing heavy out-of-pocket costs. The older Alaskans waiver is an attempt to help with rising costs.

"Without the waiver, we would have a lot of seniors in frail conditions. People wouldn't be living in a home-like environment, or they would be living at their homes in high risk," he said.

Ashman said people can expect to see the age environment change.

"The senior population will double. In the year 2020, one in four people will be 55 or older. Right now, seniors make up 8 percent of the population. The reason is because it has gotten easier to live in this state than it used to be. People aren't moving to the Outside like they used to when they got older," Ashman said. "There is currently a lot of nursing home construction going on."

Peninsula communities are adjusting to the change.

The city of Kenai offers 40 senior housing units at Vintage Point, which is operated through the city. Senior Connections, the fund-raising arm of the Kenai Senior Citizens Center, has received a predevelopment grant to build a 20-unit assisted-living center for adults who are 60 years or older.

A lakeside housing facility for seniors is planned for the Nikiski area. A six-acre plot of land on Marie Lake was donated for the purpose by two longtime members of the Nikiski Senior Citizens Center, Jim and Nedra Evenson. Plans call for building between six and 11 handicapped-accessible units where older adults can live independently in the company of other seniors.

Soldotna offers Heritage Place, a 60-bed nursing facility. Each resident at Heritage Place has a personal attending physician and the facility is staffed by registered nurses and certified nursing assistants who perform day-to-day care, such as feeding and clothing residents.

Craig said the facility would provide assistance with such needs as taking proper dosages of medicine, doing laundry and helping with meals.

Cooper Landing is in the planning stages of an independent senior citizen housing facility, as well. Working with an Alaska Housing Finance Corp. $660,000 grant, the Cooper Landing Senior Citizens Corp. Inc. is looking to build a six-unit building about 1 1/2 miles up Snug Harbor Road, according to President Chuck Young.

A10-unit senior apartment building opened next to the Sterling Senior Center in Sterling in early December.

Most other community services to senior citizens are channeled through the community senior citizen centers.

At these locations, seniors can find social networks, meals and entertainment and get help wading through the paperwork en route to state Medicare benefits.

The rise in senior population also means a rise in health care needs. Kenai Peninsula College has taken up this need by training local nurses and paramedics in two new programs at the college.

The new paramedics program will be available in fall 2005 for around 15 students who already are EMT certified. The new two-year nursing program is up and running, led by registered nurse Lynn Senette.

The program will take a dozen students every two years, with the hope that most stay to take jobs locally.

Senette said the job market is beginning to open up as the baby boomer generation retires from nursing positions and begins to need nurses and health care themselves.

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