Aging Southeast: Seniors find purpose, friendship at The Bridge

The Bridge in Juneau is only one of two formalized adult day programs in Southeast. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins)
The Bridge in Juneau is one of two formalized adult day programs in Southeast. The program costs $180 a day and accepts Medicaid waivers. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Health care and housing options are limited for seniors in Southeast, but a few adult day programs are offering relief for care providers, families and friends. They’re often a stop-gap solution until space opens up in a home.

At Juneau’s Bridge Adult Day Program, it isn’t all bingo and reruns of Lawrence Welk. Kelsey Wood, the program supervisor, says the aging adults go on field trips. They play Nintendo Wii –virtual bowling is a favorite. And they do what some might describe as contemporary exercises. The seniors recently learned a pop-culture dance phenomenon known as the Nae Nae.

“There’s some leg movements that go to it. There’s like a stanky leg thing or something like that. … They’re like, ‘This how people dance right now?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, we remember when the twist was popular,’” Wood said.

Like a lot of things at The Bridge, Wood says the exercises can be adapted for seniors with limited mobility. And that same thoughtfulness is given to people with memory loss, which most of The Bridge’s clients experience.

This morning, Wood is playing 7-up with some of The Bridge’s clients.

“It helps if you put all of the suits together,” Wood explains. 

Later there’s a party planned in celebration of Wood’s upcoming wedding. But for now, she’s helping Beth Fletcher play her best game. And after a few minutes playing cards, Fletcher is throwing down winning hands. It’s an activity she’s nostalgic for. She grew up playing Buck Euchre with her siblings in Minnesota and says she loves the attention she gets from Wood.

“Boy, my memory isn’t very good you know, I’m 90 something. So I can’t remember a lot of what I did when I retired,” Fletcher said. “When I was young, I rode horseback. Before I could walk, I rode horseback. … My mind doesn’t hold things very well. But anyway, I had a great life.”

Fletcher comes to The Bridge four times a week. The difference between a program like this and a nursing home or assisted living facility is she goes home to family at the end of the day. For some seniors, it’s the best option.

“For folks that are waiting to get into a (Pioneer Home), are waiting to get into nursing-level care, it fills that gap,” Wood said.

Depending on the location, state-run Pioneer Homes screen applicants on application date and other criteria. In Juneau, it’s first-come-first-serve. In Sitka, it’s based on date and level of care. Still, the wait can sometimes be years before a space becomes available. And Juneau’s Wildflower Court, which is a nursing home, doesn’t admit clients–based on memory loss alone. So are there enough adult day programs to help fill the gap in Southeast?

“No, there are not,” says Maryanne Mills, the director of Southeast Senior Services.

Kelsey Wood's flower girl drops petals before Wood's walks down the aisle. The pretend wedding was organized so members of The Bridge could see Wood's get married before her weekend nuptials.
Kelsey Wood’s “flower girl” tosses petals down the aisle. The pretend wedding was organized so clients of The Bridge could celebrate Wood’s upcoming nuptials. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“In fact, a couple of years ago, we worked with Centers for Community to submit a proposal to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services for a program in Sitka,” Mills said.

There are only a few formalized adult day programs in the region, like Ketchikan’s Rendezvous Senior Day Services. The grant intended for Sitka wound up going to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

“And of course right now, with Alaska’s fiscal crisis, getting state general funds to start such a program is probably not going to happen in the immediate future. We trying to hold on to what we have.”

Mills says keeping the doors open for adult day programs saves money when you consider the alternative. Remember, most of the people at The Bridge have some form of memory loss, which could mean expensive full-time care.

So for those who do stay at home, Mills thinks the time to socialize is important.

“It’s sometimes not the natural way to be,” Mills said. “A lot of people tend to isolate when they get older, but that’s not what they should be doing if they want to live a long independent life for as long as possible.”

Back at The Bridge, the cozy living room atmosphere has been transformed into a pretend wedding. The seniors wear frilly corsages and sip sparkling grape juice.

The bridge
“People aren’t always going to remember your name, but they remember if you do something nice for them and treat them kindly,” said Kelsey Wood.  (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

And after a while, Wood and her fiance are ready to walk down the aisle. She’s wearing jeans, clutching a bouquet made out of sparkling brooches — the one she’ll carry on her actual wedding day.

DeeAnn Grummett and her 78-year-old husband are looking on. Grummett brings him to The Bridge four days a week.

“You know I pop in and out at different times and they’re always engaged in an activity. They’re not just sitting around staring at the walls,” Grummett said. “They seem to enjoy each other’s company, and the staff is wonderful.”

Both Grummett and her spouse are on the waitlist for the Pioneers’ Home, but she wants to keep him with her as long as she can. She says The Bridge plays a crucial role in helping her do that.

“At this point for us, it’s much better than even in-home services because what we need is a social experience. My husband has reached the point where he can’t plan and carry out his own social life, and he needs a social life,” Grummett said.

She says when she drops her husband off in the morning, and if he’s in a not-so-great-mood, he’s always feeling better by the end of the day.

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