From the Front Lines: Braving Alaskan Winters in Assisted Living

From the Front Lines is a monthly Q&A series from Senior Housing News. Our aim is to get out of the C-suite from time to time to focus on some of the interesting and dynamic people who work at the forefront of the senior living industry. Have a colleague who does something cool and works in a senior living community? Drop us a line.

The experience of living and working in Alaska is far different from that of living and working in the lower 48 states. That’s especially true for senior living providers, which grapple with freezing temperatures, a higher cost of doing business and even a wandering bear or two.

Still, the need for more senior care services in Alaska is great. Although it’s not typically a hotbed for new senior housing development, the state has one of the fastest-growing senior populations in the country.

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Theresa Gleason, director at Providence Horizon House—a non-profit assisted living community in Anchorage, Alaska—knows how to cope with the many challenges of working in the Last Frontier. Horizon House, a Providence Health & Services community, has a two-week food stockpile and an emergency generator that can keep the building powered for three days.

Senior Housing News recently caught up Gleason to learn more about running a senior living community in Alaska, including during the frigid winter months when it’s normal to see snow, ice and just five hours of sunlight in a day:

SHN: Describe the community where you work.

Gleason: We’re in the middle of Anchorage, which is the biggest city in Alaska. Our apartment building was built first in 1995. That’s a three-story building, and it has 60 apartments in it. The residents who live there need assisted living, but they’re a little independent, too. In 2002, our first memory care unit opened. Our memory care waitlist is probably a year long. There’s a huge need for memory care here. We’re a locked, secured, environment, and there’s not many homes that offer that. That’s one reason we have such a long waiting list.

Where do your residents come from?

Most are local Alaskans, but we do have a fair number who moved up here because their family was up here. They retired, all their grandkids were here, so they moved up here. Or they were living independently in the lower 48 and not able to do so anymore, and all their kids were in Alaska. We do see quite a few folks from out of state that do come up here. I see it more as a need of the family to take care of mom and dad.

How’s the weather in Anchorage?

Summertime is awesome. We do tons of outside activities. Taking the residents fishing, gardening, taking them to outings to the wildlife center, to the park. We go on all kinds of outdoor outings.

In the wintertime, then it’s not as easy. Sometimes, activities get cancelled because of the weather, but we still try to keep them active. It challenges us to be more creative and do more things in the building. We have a physical therapist that comes in, and she has a group that does a series of exercises in the hallways. Even when she’s not here, you see the residents going up and down the hallways doing these exercises.

Some of our residents, their families buy them a SAD light. SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The SAD light, essentially, is a light you sit in front of for 30 minutes a day and it helps keep that seasonal affective disorder at bay. Sometimes, you see residents sitting in their rooms with that light on.

We still do some activities that require us to leave the building, though. We go to plays. We go on shopping trips. We go out on luncheons. That’s an all-year-long kind of activity. But again, based on weather, you kind of have to adjust your schedule according to what’s going on outside.

What about when there’s a foot of snow on the ground or it’s 10 degrees below zero?

Well, Anchorage is more mild. You might compare us to Chicago, really, as far as our weather goes. It just lasts longer. Winter starts, sometimes, in September. Usually, the first snowfall happens in October. Depending on the year, we can have snow all the way into May. When my daughters graduated a couple years ago, for instance, there was snow on the ground, and that was in the middle of May.

But, I would say our temperatures in the winter in Anchorage are probably more comparable to Chicago. We do have some days that get below zero. I’ve been here for a while and it doesn’t seem like we have too many days that are below zero during the winter.

Is it more expensive to run a senior living community in Alaska?

It is definitely more expensive to live up here. In Anchorage, it is cheaper than in some of the bush communities that are only accessible by airplane, mostly because we have the port here. The boats come in and unload often, so we get access to fresh fruit and vegetables, other things like that. But as far as running your assisted living home, you’re probably not going to have strawberries in December because that’s very, very expensive versus apples, oranges, and bananas. So, you can either drive up the cost of business, or manage it with good decisions.

Does that mean you’re serving more seasonal meals?

Yes. We always try to have fresh fruit available for our residents, but you’re not going to see fresh strawberries in December, because it’s just way too expensive. Watermelon, you’re going to see in the summertime and that’s it. It’s way too expensive to ship up here.

Can you ever see the Northern Lights?

Oh, yeah. I don’t see them too well in the city, but when you get out there on the snow machine out in these remote areas, the Northern Lights are just crazy and beautiful.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Read previous From the Front Lines interviews:

LCS’ Equestrian Executive Director

Meet Brookdale’s Competitive Chef 

Written by Tim Regan

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