The Yukon-Kukoskwim Delta is the size of Ohio and includes over 50 villages. The region’s hub, Bethel, has over 6,000 residents. Until now, families who had an elder they couldn’t care for at home went to Anchorage, 400 miles away by airplane. That is until the first elder’s home opened up after a decade of planning.
Peter Atchak gently holds his wife’s hand leading her into a bedroom of the new facility. Mary shuffles slowly beside him. She has dementia and Peter takes care of her at their Bethel home. But he knows that one day soon, this could be her new home.
“It means hope, relief. . .possibly relief,” Atchak said.
Over the past few years, Mary’s been in and out of a couple of assisted living facilities in Anchorage. Plane tickets cost around $400 round trip from Bethel and twice that from some villages.
Ultimately, it didn’t work out.
“That wasn’t good,” Atchak said. “I mean they were good places, but, without family, she was just. . .fading away.”
In most places, residents would probably like the privacy of their own room. But in the Yup’ik culture extended families often pack into tiny village homes.
Liz Lee is YKHC’s Home Care Services Director.
“We know that in our culture our elders live in multi-generational homes most of the time and so you take them from their area of comfort and you put them in a single room. We thought that that could be an issue,” Lee said. “So we thought of the hotels, how you can share a door with the next room, and if your roommate next door is okay with it, you can open the doors and still enjoy each others company.
Lee has worked on the project for over 10 years. They gathered input from a team of elders who had specific priorities in mind for the design.
“Things like the chapel, things like the colors of the region,” Lee said.
Lucy Jacobs was one of several local elders who attended the open house. In Yup’ik she says she was grateful that the building was there, especially for the elders who do not have children around to care for them.
The structure of the building itself is different. There are 18 beds, split into two main pods, which also contain large open living areas. The pod-design eliminates the need for hallways. It keeps the atmosphere open and homey and allows staff to see a large space all at once. The place looks as expensive as it is. It cost $16.3 million to build, mostly from the State of Alaska appropriations.
The elders won’t be paying out of their pockets to stay there. Most of them are Indian Health Services beneficiaries and will use that along with Medicaid to foot the bill.
“If we factor in the electricity and you know, everything, it would be probably about a thousand dollars a day,” Barbara Jacobson, YKHC’s Chief Nurse Executive, said. “Most people can’t afford that.”
Most elders are from the villages in the region, some hundreds of miles away from Bethel. As Jason Blalock, the home’s administrator explains, they will be able to use video conferencing through the village’s health clinics to stay in touch back home.
“So, the family member can actually communicate with the villages in our clinics,” Blalock said. “So, our clinics have the same video conference technology.”
New technology is everywhere. There’s a computer programs that tracks all the details of the residents daily activities including their diets.
But it doesn’t look sterile. The floor is special microbial wood and the wall protectors have real flowers and grass captured in the resin.
Atchak appreciates all the technology. But the real importance to him is being close to home.
“When you recognize people, and foods, and [culture], it helps you way inside,” Atchak said. “And you remember, she remembers a lot of things that she cannot express right now. When you have love around you, it conquers all…that’s all it amounts to.”
Construction of the project started in 2011. The ribbon cutting ceremony was held Sept. 27.