Honor for Elders in Anchorage
  • Wednesday, May 28, 2014

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

As an 88-year-old resident of Anchorage, Alaska, Carol A. Phillips has none of the housing options available to many seniors in other parts of the country. Her income is a shade too high for low-income facilities, yet too low for her to afford private assisted living in a state where costs are sky-high.

Now Phillips, a widow who came to the Last Frontier with her late husband as a clergy missionary couple in 1963, is again pinning her hopes on the church. And she just might have a dream come true through an innovative parish initiative that aims to be a model for other congregations.

St. Mary’s Church in Anchorage is in design stages for a 15-unit senior housing complex on its 19-acre wooded property with expansive views of the Chugach Mountains. Once it’s completed in fall 2015, 20 individuals will live there, just steps from the church, as will an overnight staff member. A manager will be on duty by day to help with situations that arise and keep the facility running smoothly.

For Phillips, who lives alone in a small apartment, the sliding-scale pricing could make it possible for her to stay in Alaska near her daughter and friends, even if her needs intensify in coming years.

“What a wonderful place that would be, to be within the arms of the church, which would just be within walking distance up the hill,” Phillips told TLC in a phone interview. “To be in that faith-based community would just be the answer to prayers in terms of senior living.”

For St. Mary’s, the hope is just as grand. Perhaps life in a robustly Christian community would be a blessing to more than a few elders in the city. Maybe this 700-member church can pioneer a biblical alternative to traditional elderly housing and assisted living in America.

In most American cities and suburbs, “everything about our architecture strives to create privacy and independence from one another,” said the Rev. Michael Burke, rector at St. Mary’s. “We want to turn that upside and use the best practices of architecture to bring us together.”

The vision, which has been in the making for more than 10 years, is based on Acts 2. The early Church held things in common, according to Scripture, and provided for each on the basis of need. Soon at St. Mary’s residents will share their lives within a structure that allows for a measure of privacy while building intentional community.

Residents will occupy individual apartments, but they’ll also share common spaces, including a kitchen and lounge area. A chef will cook with them, not for them, on days when they want the companionship of preparing a meal, praying, and breaking bread together.

They’ll be a stone’s throw from the church, which will mean easy access to services all week and frequent visits with the congregation’s many children.

And they’ll be able to help each other with day-to-day needs. If one resident can no longer see well enough to read the morning newspaper, a neighbor might read it for him over coffee in the lounge. If live-in help is too pricey for any one person or couple, then two or three might pool funds for a live-in nurse or personal assistant, who could stay in one of the studio apartments.

Thea Agnew Bemben, a planning committee member, tears up when she talks about what’s in store for seniors, possibly including her aging father.

He and his friends “will be able to grow old together,” Bemben said. “It’s going to make our community even more intentionally intergenerational than it already is.”

The idea for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Housing Company grew out of conversations among church friends who looked ahead and wondered about their futures. A common sentiment kept recurring: “Wouldn’t it be great if we all lived together?”

Now it’s becoming reality through one family’s donation, which covers the bulk of the $4.2 million construction cost, plus nearly another $800,000 for related support once the building is finished. The facility will be debt-free and will not rely on government financing, which is important for ensuring the spiritual character of the community, Burke said.

Residents will generally pay between $3,000 and $5,000 per month to live in the new complex, depending on the size of their respective units. That’s less than they would likely pay at similar facilities, Burke said. A sliding scale will create access for those who cannot afford to pay full price. First priority will go to St. Mary’s members, followed by other area Episcopalians and members of mainline Protestant denominations.

It’s no coincidence that such an innovative project would emerge in this location. Like the state itself, Alaska’s population is relatively young and has little support for the state’s growing cohort of elders. Population growth, coupled with a lack of buildable land, has driven housing prices skyward. Because developers have declined to erect new senior housing at high costs, retirees often need to leave the state and bid their friends goodbye in search of a new residence that meets their needs.

Standard housing options for local seniors curry little favor among older congregants at St. Mary’s, Burke said. Staying in their homes can usher in social isolation when age-related eyesight problems make them reluctant to drive at night.

“I knew it would be lonely in these later years,” said Phillips, who stopped driving three years ago. “But I didn’t realize how much so, until I lost my last sibling a couple of years ago.”

While moving to an institution in another state might meet elders’ physical needs, it can quash other needs, such as proximity to friends. Burke adds that seniors also need to be of service to others even as they age and to be part of an intergenerational community. But those needs generally go unmet in nursing homes and similar facilities, where he says systems tend to be “medicalized.”

“This is the time of your life when you should be an honored person in your faith community,” Burke said. “The gifts and the experiences that you have should be honored, lifted up, and used to their fullest.”

Living at St. Mary’s will allow residents to indulge idiosyncrasies that might not be tolerated at other types of facilities. If someone wants to set up a woodshop in a garage space, for instance, that’s fine. Letting people keep their quirks and passions alive will help keep the place feeling like home.

The model might not be replicable everywhere. Few faith communities can spare $5 million for a housing project.

Then again, building supplies cost less in most parts of the country than in Alaska. And the concept, Burke said, could be reproduced on a more modest scale in just about any setting where seniors want to share their lives in intentional Christian community.

For her part, Phillips aims to live in her apartment for as long as she can. She expects the building project could be delayed and is trying to be patient. Yet each day she hopes to be among the first of many generations to experience what St. Mary’s is creating.

In the new facility, “I would be aware of having a support group all around me, even if they wouldn’t be in the same apartment,” Phillips said. “I hope I live long enough to be there.”

Image of Carol A. Phillips courtesy of A.T. Wilson

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