Assisted living communities: An assist but no panacea to healthcare or economic health

hugsI listened to the 7-hour public hearing on the Rincon del Rio seniors project before the county supervisors on my laptop while working away. There was no “boss” button to push (like the NCAA “March Madness” website), and no boss to hover over me, either.

I found it informative on numerous fronts, and I got my work done too. I learned a lot about our community, its priorities and pondered our experiences:

1. We are a retirement community, first and foremost, is what people said. The issue of jobs for our younger people — a big issue — was touched upon. But we also were reminded this project will benefit the job market in Placer County as much as our county, because it is so close to the I-80 corridor.

2. We are relying on development and real estate, first and foremost, for our western county economic development strategy. There was a brief discussion about a small farm — Jardin del Rio — that could provide some home-grown food for the Rincon del Rio residents.

But it will play a small role, at best. With the “food and farm” movement, it’s a powerful marketing tool for development — just like the farm at Loma Rica (now closed with the project in limbo).

3. We are depending on the money generated by big assisted living projects (more are in the works, such as the Litchfield project at the HEW building in Nevada City) to help our local private economy and non-profits prosper.

We are counting on some “trickle down” from these residents and developers, assuming they don’t turn left and go to Placer County instead. We also are counting on real estate sales, at least until the units are sold.

4. Most people seemed to think assisted living was a panacea for elderly people who cannot live independently, but it is really isn’t, others reminded us. Our first-hand experience confirms that. I could tell some of the people who spoke had not experienced elder care — yet.

5. Fire safety came up, including a gate that is supposed to block unwanted traffic in one direction, but break apart in the event of a fire evacuation. It reminded me of a debate that went on about the expansion of former county supervisor Crawford Bost’s property that the board also supported (Nate Beason raised some concerns, though).

In the end, the county board of supervisors said “yes” to approve certification of the EIR and General Plan amendment of the Rincon Del Rio project by a 4-1 vote. Richard Anderson of Truckee was the lone “no” vote, worried about precedent in other unincorporated areas of the county. Richard raised some cogent points.

Some people thought Grass Valley Supervisor Terry Lamphier would vote “no” too, but he faces a tough re-election campaign in “pro-development” Grass Valley, mostly likely against Mayor Dan Miller, as we’ve reported previously. Terry raised some good questions along the way.

OUR EXPERIENCE WITH ELDER CARE

The long discussion brought up our own experiences caring for our parents before they died. Assisted living “assisted” us for a time, but in the end, my mother died at our home under hospice care and my father died at a convalescent home.

We did the “heavy lifting,” albeit with no regrets. But it was the reality.

One of the reasons we moved to this area was to care for my parents as they were winding down their lives. We were very close.

Before we came here, they lived on their own in Bodega Bay, where they chose to retire. Then as they became less independent, we helped them rent a home up the street for us in San Anselmo, in Marin County.

Then when they became less independent we moved here (we wanted to escape the big city at the same time) and rented them a “patio home” in Eskaton in Grass Valley — just like what’s being proposed at Rincon del Rio.

“Families often believe these facilities will meet all of their loved ones’ needs, enabling caregivers to focus on jobs and family, only to find this isn’t the case,” as a column in the New York Times reminds us.

“Before long, the elderly residents will require more than ‘meals you don’t have to cook, grass you don’t have to cut and socialization,” Dr. Cheryl Woodson said. At that point the elderly resident is in trouble, since assisted living facilities are not permitted by law to provide medical care and consider it to be the family’s responsibility.’”

It did become our responsibility: trips to the doctor’s office, all the cooking (on weekends, we made fresh food and froze it for the week); hiring caregivers to help out, no easy task. We did all this while we were working and raising our young child.

We’re just glad we could do it in a small community, and we loved our parents and wanted to help them. It was less costly than the Bay Area too.

After our parents were no longer independent enough to live at Eskaton, they moved in with us: to a comfortable, one-bedroom “in-law” unit in the downstairs part of our house, just off the kitchen.

It was a rich experience for our son, getting to know them as best as he could at a young age. It was easier on us too, when you factored in all the driving back and forth to Eskaton.

My mother was able to stay with us until the end, thanks to hospice. My father had to be moved to a nursing home after some trips back and forth from home, to the hospital and to the nursing home.

Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital did a good job, but they will have to be factored in to any economic-development decision to build more assisted living in our community. They will need our community’s support when it comes to expansion and upgrades.

In the end, we felt good about how we had helped our parents in their final years.

Now that we’re raising our son in our community, we’re also looking for signs that he will be able to stay here after going to college and be able to find a job — a real hole in our economic development strategy. We’re haven’t seen too many signs of that, but we’ll hold out hope.

In the meantime, our son is enjoying the small community lifestyle and all the outdoor activities that go with it: running, hiking, playing outside, fishing and swimming in the lakes and rivers. We enjoy sharing that with him, and we just wound up creating our own jobs.

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About jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.
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3 Responses to Assisted living communities: An assist but no panacea to healthcare or economic health

  1. Wanda says:

    Thanks for the fine report, Jeff. I’ve lived here for 33 years and GV/NC has been a retirement community all that time. The only complaint was snow but being above the smog and below the snow makes this community ideal…if there are services. I
    I’ve seen services come and go. The Lutz Center being one that came and went. Dial-A-Ride has barely kept up with demand and doesn’t cover most of the area. It can’t. Meals on Wheels experienced inconsistent funding even when times were good. Hospice of the Foothills has come and expanded during our life here.
    My husband and I took care of his mother and later my father. Both passed away in our home. We relied on Dial a Ride for his mother but the Lutz Center and Dial-a-Ride and Hospice played a very important role in enabling us to care for my father until his death in 2004. The Lutz Center is gone. I don’t know how families cope with assisting their parents in the later years without adaquate services. Who can afford Assisted Living facilities? I wonder if Rincon del Rio will really bring what developers want and the county hopes.
    As for the fire issue and locked gates to keep traffic away until there’s a fire I have this observation to offer. No entity will take responsibility for opening the locked gate. Past efforts to ensure adaquate escape routes were contentous and nasty among residents. Those expereinces have left the clear impression that community residents prefer to take their chances with fire rather than put up with a little traffic. Which leads me to my final comment and question.
    The county seems unwilling to do what’s right for safety and isn’t consistent in providing services to the population they want to attract. How do fixed income retired residents support the tax base necessary for the county to provide services?

  2. Judith Lowry says:

    Good article Jeff. I have a question. What kind of education, training and qualifications does one need to work at a elder facility?

    I know some mature, caring individuals who do this kind of work, and do it well. I have also seen that, as a low-paying job there are some folks working in this field that I would never allow near my elder loved ones. I once knew a young woman who referred to the facility she worked at as a “shit factory”. (I was horrified) It seems to be a mixed bag.

    I wonder if Sierra College might do well to launch an accredited program of elder care education which would produce the best kind of caregiver and ensure that older folks, who need help in the last years of their life, would receive the skills, respect and compassion they deserve. Perhaps our county would then come to be known as the best area for overburdened families to place their cherished elders.

  3. Greg Zaller says:

    Great article, Jeff.

    A few years ago my mother-in-law had to live at Eskaton. At first it appeared a great place but then it occurred to me that it lacked meaningful activities, a healthy diet and lifestyle, and it was very expensive, costing several thousand a month.

    I devised a shared housing concept that would address those problems and jumped in but couldn’t find seniors who were interested. Due to a mistake the house filled up in one day with homeless ex-addicts and I decided to go with it. They were able to barely maintain for a year and half, Then the little “family” fell apart in a most spectacular manner and I had to evict everyone except for one. Since I was able to identify what went wrong, I started over, partnering with a local nonprofit. Nine months later it is still going strong serving just ex-addict women. We are planning to expand soon and you’ll probably be hearing about it.

    It is possible to help the homeless regain their self sufficiency, but not by counseling them and giving them things. It requires making it easier to take a step and giving them the responsibility and the support they need to succeed.

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