In rural Alaska, many elders who are no longer able to live independently are left with no choice, but to leave their home for larger communities. In the Interior, with the opening of the Yukon-Koyukuk Elder Assisted Living Facility, elders will now be able to stay in the region they feel most at home, along the Yukon River. Learn more in this week’s post.

The idea to build a place for elders to stay and live along the Yukon River came about 20 years ago at a Tanana Chiefs Conference Denakkanaaga Elder and Youth Conference. A decade later, the same conference passed a formal resolution to build an elder facility.

On May 26, 2011, the hopes of many came true with the grand opening of the Yukon-Koyukuk Elder Assisted Living Facility (YKEALF) in the village of Galena, AK. Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan and I were amongst several guests able to attend from out-of-town. It was a perfectly sunny day to be overlooking the Yukon River, in YKEALF’s community room (photo below).

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YKEALF means that elders no longer able to live independently will be able to stay in the region they feel most at home, along the Yukon River. Before, the only options were to move away to facilities in Fairbanks and Anchorage. For elders that had spent their entire lives in rural Alaska, moving meant being taken away from all-familiarity, including their families, culture, subsistence diet, and environment. For many, it became a traumatic experience.

The long-awaited elder facility is the result of many working together and forming strong partnerships. First, five village tribal councils formed a consortium: Kaltag, Koyukuk, Louden (Galena), Nulato, and Ruby. Each agreed to contribute $90,000 of its funding from the Indian Health Service, with Galena and Nulato contributing $150,000. The consortium, with two representatives from each tribe, met monthly to keep the project progressing. The group worked to maintain continuity despite changes in leadership.

The Louden Tribal Council (Galena) began administrating the project and applying for funding. Grant funding came from the Denali Commission, Rasmuson Foundation, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority (AMHTA). Many more organizations provided consulting support, donations and in-kind support. The Interior Regional Housing Authority constructed the nine-room building and has continued to provide essential guidance.

The support and volunteer service by the Galena community has shown that Galena will be a wonderful place for the elder facility. The facility was actually completed last summer, but lacked a strong administrator to open and manage it. Community member Agnes Sweetsir said she was tired of driving by the empty building and asked to be the volunteer administrator last fall. The YKEALF Consortium agreed. Since then, she has selflessly spent 30 to 40 hours a week preparing to open it for residents. With a desire to see the facility open, other community members: donated items, from artwork to bedding and dishes; some put furniture together and set it up; and others volunteered to maintain the facility, which meant everything from boiler repairs to snow removal.

When YKEALF is fully operational, it will provide 14 new jobs in Galena, including ten Certified Nursing Assistants and Personal Care Attendants, who were trained through funding from AMHTA.

Throughout the YKEALF Grand Opening many received heartfelt “thank-you”s for their contributions. I was reminded of the quote by Elmer Rasmuson: “Helping others is an Alaskan tradition.” Without the collaborative help of numerous individuals and organizations, the facility opening could not have come to fruition.

Pat Sweetsir, president of Ruby Tribal Council said, “Rasmuson Foundation – their support is like the goodness of humanity.” That sunny day at the grand opening highlighted humanities utmost goodness of providing for and helping our elders.