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Senior population grows as Last Frontier matures

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

 

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  Retired Anchorage attorney David Pree, 77, stands on a porch of the Pioneer Home in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 7, 2004. The percentage of people 65 and older has nearly tripled in the state since construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and Alaska now has the second fastest growing elder population in the nation. AP Photo/Al Grillo

Lorene Harrison shows some of the famous people she has met as she talks about her book in the Pioneer Home in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 6, 2004. The 99-year-old widow from Sterling, Kan. came to Anchorage in 1928 to take a one-year job teaching music and home economics and never left. The percentage of people 65 and older in the state has nearly tripled since construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and Alaska now has the second fastest growing elder population inthe nation.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

ANCHORAGE Alaska was supposed to be a one-year stint when Lorene Harrison arrived in 1928 to take a job teaching music and home economics in Anchorage, a small frontier town in the wilderness.

She was 23, a farm girl from Sterling, Kan., seeking adventure in the northern territory, decades before it became a state.

Over time, she married, started a family, opened a hat shop, founded the city's concert association and hosted a local talk show. The city matured right along with her, and there was never any reason to leave, said the 99-year-old widow.

''I can't think of anything I need that we don't have here,'' she said.

Not so long ago, older Alaskans tended to leave. Medical care was limited in the Far North, and doctors and hospitals as much as sun and warmth beckoned elders south.

But because of the changing attitudes of Alaska seniors such as Harrison, Alaska now has the second-fastest growing elder population in the nation. Between 2000 and 2003, Alaska's older population increased 14 percent, second only to Nevada, which saw a 15 percent jump, according to the Census Bureau.

It reflects the growing number of Alaskans who choose to stay with their roots. And with that growing number of seniors comes new challenges in geriatric care, housing and transportation services.

 

Retired Anchorage attorney David Pree, 77, stands on a porch of the Pioneer Home in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 7, 2004. The percentage of people 65 and older has nearly tripled in the state since construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and Alaska now has the second fastest growing elder population in the nation.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

The percentage of people 65 and older has nearly tripled since construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline brought more than 30,000 job-seekers to the young state in the mid-1970s, said state statistician Greg Williams.

Many of those workers are now retiring, while a growing number of earlier pioneers also have chosen to stay in Alaska. On top of that, some baby boomers are bringing their aging parents to the state.

Gray hair was a rare sight in Alaska when David Frain moved to the state along with thousands of others in 1974. That's no longer true, said Frain, administrator of the Anchorage Pioneers' Home, a state-run assisted living facility.

''I think it's a combination of family roots and better medical services now,'' Frain said.

Then there's the view, said retired Anchorage attorney David Pree, 77, as he gazed out a window of the home at the snowcapped Chugach Mountains framing a backdrop of fall colors.

''I look out there and I feel the majesty of the Lord. It gives me power,'' said Pree, a 50-year resident who ignores doctors' orders to leave during winter, which tends to aggravate his asthma and emphysema. ''I don't want to leave. I want to be buried here.''

Altogether, close to 39,000 people 6 percent of the state's population are older Alaskans.

The state still has the smallest percentage of elderly residents in the United States, far below the national average of 12.3 percent. But, as with the rest of the nation, Alaska is shouldering a growing share of older citizens.

Frain oversees the care of 150 residents at the Anchorage Pioneers' Home, one of six in the state offering assisted living and nursing care to Alaskans. When the Anchorage home opened in 1977, the average age of the residents was 68. Now it's 90.

''Our aging population is a wonderful thing elders have so much wisdom and culture and experience,'' Frain said. ''There are challenges, too, more transportation needs and a shortage of care facilities for elders with higher needs.''

Not all is rosy for the state's elders, however.

With an aging clientele comes increasing demands, such as finding enough workers to deal with patients with dementia and Alzheimer's disease or patients who have lost their ability to function independently.

Most older Alaskans live in urban areas where medical care and other necessities are more accessible. Four out of every five senior residents live in urban areas such as Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks or more rural hubs like Bethel, which serves Southwest Alaska villages.

Another challenge for the elderly is finding affordable housing in light of reduced incomes and rising medical expenses.

Half of the state's senior households fall short of low-income standards set for Alaska by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At least 40 percent of residents 85 and older live below HUD very-low income guidelines. Alaska's elderly are twice as likely as seniors nationally to receive public assistance, according to the Alaska Commission on Aging, an advisory group for seniors.

The state provides various services for low-income older Alaskans, ranging from help with heating bills and housing to home nursing care. But Gov. Frank Murkowski last year vetoed $44 million in state funding for a program set up in the 1970s that provided checks of up to $250 a month to 18,000 eligible senior citizens, regardless of their income.

At the same time, the state set up a new program to provide $120 monthly payments for about 7,500 seniors meeting strict income guidelines. The program, expected to end in January 2006, was established with $10 million in federal funds. It has helped some older Alaskans, but not all of those in need, said Linda Gohl, the commission's executive director.

''Some people were right on the edge of qualifying for the income-eligible program,'' Gohl said. ''These are folks who really needed the $250 a month.''

Cut off from a substantial chunk of money, some elderly residents tightened their budgets, even selling cars because they could no longer afford insurance, gasoline or maintenance costs. That further taxed the limited public and senior transportation services available, Gohl said.

''Transportation is a huge issue in this state,'' she said. ''Sidewalks are not always cleared in the winter, so how do you get from A to B even if you want to take the bus? For the person who needs senior transportation, medical needs take priority over grocery shopping.''

It's a dilemma that's not going to disappear anytime soon. Alaska's senior population is expected to triple within the next two decades, increasing the demand for more public and private assisted living facilities, more workers skilled in geriatric care, more affordable housing.

''It certainly means we aren't prepared institutionally to handle large numbers,'' Williams said. ''All the people needed to deal with this population are going to find employment relatively quickly. It's only going to get bigger.''



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