TONASKET, Wash. -- At 101 years old, Lew Ryder still likes a beer and an occasional whiskey. They are the last vestiges of his fleeting independence.
“Everything is good here,” he said. “I can take care of myself.”
Ryder is happy in Tonasket's North Valley Assisted Living Facility. He passes his time quietly watching ESPN and reading the local newspaper. It's where he hoped he would spend the rest of his life.
“I want to stay here. This is my home,” he said.
But Ryder and the 27 others at North Valley have to leave because their home is shutting down. Most of the residents don't have a penny to their name. With no family around, Ryder doesn't know what he'll do. He says the news came without warning.
“I tell you, it's hell to get old and have something like this happen,” he said.
It's a different sort of situation for Elaine Grillo. She has family around, but no one can afford to take her in. Grillo’s daughter and son-in-law have health issues of their own, as well as a mentally ill son who lives with them part-time.
Sherri Laurie still works to pay the bills. At 69, she’d have to quit her job to take care of her 91-year-old mother.
“It's just been hard,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “I've shed so many tears. When I start talking about it, I just start crying again.”
In January the North Valley Health District abruptly announced it was closing the assisted living facility because it was hemorrhaging money. The district also operates a nursing home and hospital. Now, $2 million in debt, administrators say the only way for them to avoid a complete collapse of health care in the community is to shut the center down.
“If we keep operating the way we are now, we are going to end up without a hospital, without a nursing home, without an assisted living,” said North Valley CEO Linda Michel.
This same situation is playing out in cities big and small all across the country. As the number of poor senior citizens increases, and the amount of government assistance to pay for their health care decreases, how to house the elderly is becoming a national crisis.
The state only pays a fraction of what it costs to care for patients who can't afford to pay for their own care. As a result, many facilities simply refuse to take any poor patients.
It’s leaving loved ones like Mary Lou Kriner at a loss. Her mother has Alzheimer’s disease and has found a comfortable home at North Valley. Now being forced out, Kriner says, “good luck trying to find a home for her.”
Kriner can’t find a facility that will accept her mother because she is on Medicaid.
“They’re all private pay,” she said. “And there’s no way I can come up with the $9,000 or $10,000 a month to get her in somewhere.”
Three assisted living facilities and one nursing home have recently closed in neighboring cities. Some from North Valley will end up being shipped off to facilities in other parts of the state, far from family and everything that they know.
“It's sad to think that it's even gonna be a bigger population in the future, that this is gonna have a direct impact on,” said Lisa Andrews, holding a sign at a rally to save the home.
Supporters have filed for an injunction to keep North Valley open.
“It absolutely is a recipe for doom,” said North Valley CEO Linda Michel. She warns that more facilities like hers will continue to close unless sweeping changes are made. Until then, she sees a dramatic shift in who will care for our aging elders.
“I think we're going to be taking our parents back into our homes, “ she said. “I don't see a way out yet. I wish I did.”
More information on options for caring for aging parents can be found at the Washington State Department of Health Services – Aging & Disability Services Administration.