Help for Older Alaskans Felled by Disability Comes at a Cost

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA News Director
3/29/14

Anchorage, ALASKA—Good physical and mental functioning is considered a sign of successful aging, along with an engaging social life and financial security. Health problems can change everything.

Henry Porter, of Yakutat, entered an assisted living home in Anchorage a month and a half ago. Porter is 65, and has been on disability since he was 52 due to rheumatoid arthritis, and arthritis of the spine.

“I was living by myself, taking care of myself. It’s been do-able up until this last flare-up I had last April. Arthritis can be dormant, active,” says Porter. “This flare-up was real bad. My knees swelled up until I couldn’t hardly bear my weight on them. That’s when I ran into the problems with the reactions to medications. From April to September, I lost 50 pounds.”

Porter is 5’9” and normally weighs 190 pounds. Now he weighs 135. He’s being fed through a tube to his stomach while doctors try to resolve his problems with swallowing.

He says he entered the home with a sense of relief, even though communal living is different from living alone.

“So it’s been a change, but I tell you, it’s a welcome change,” says Porter. “It was getting difficult for me to do the simplest things, like go to the restroom by myself. They’re here 24 hours assisting.”

Don Thibedeau is a social worker at a nursing home, the Denali Center, in Fairbanks. He says the home provides short-term care for people recovering from an injury or surgery, and long-term care for people with dementia, or with restricted mobility due to the effects of a stroke, diabetes, or heart disease, for instance. While people sometimes dread and resist giving up their independence, Thibedeau says Porter’s reaction is not uncommon.

 Henry Porter, 65, of Yakutat, is turning all his assets over to an irrevocable trust to reimburse the state for the cost of staying in an assisted living facility. (Joaqlin Estus)“You know just recently we had a few admissions, and the people knew that they were coming here. And the way they worded it to me is, ‘Is it okay if I live there for the rest of my life?’ They really very much were aware that it was becoming way too difficult to manage things at home,” says Thibedeau.

That relief comes at a cost, though. Porter receives social security disability, and, as a former commercial fisherman, gets revenue from a halibut Community Development Quota. He owns a house. As a Tlingit Indian, he receives medical care through the Indian Health Service. But he says he’s paying the tab for the assisted living.

“I’m not going to be able to afford it much longer. I’m applying for a Medicaid waiver, where I sign over all my assets. I think this is the way it works. You sign over all your assets to a trust fund. They spend it down over the years. Once you spend it down, they cover all your expenses after that. You get $100 a month [allowance].”

Porter says he’s hoping his health will improve to the point where he can do some work to earn money. “I’m in no shape right now. But I might bounce back. Maybe there’ll be a miracle cure.”

Porter has some advice for younger people.

“Start planning early for your retirement. When you’re younger you feel like ‘oh, my golly, fifty’s never coming.’ Then fifty comes and goes and you’ve gone right on by. Retirement age comes a lot sooner than you think. And it takes quite a substantial savings to get anywhere close to what you were making before you were retired. So save early, save over a longer period of time. It’s less hurtful that way.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall rate of people in Alaska whose activities were limited in 2012 due to physical, mental or emotional problems was 20%, a number that goes up to 34.2 percent for people age 65 and up.

This is part four in a six-part series by Joaqlin Estus on "Aging in Alaska" for Koahnic Broadcast’s KNBA Public Radio (broadcasting Alaskan Native voices), made possible through a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

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