What Happens to the Millions That Can’t Afford Assisted Living

As the population over sixty-five doubles in the next thirty years, what will happen to the tens of millions of elderly men and women with limited means who can’t afford traditional assisted living arrangements?

Down in Tucson, St. Luke’s Home offers a model of health and well-being for low-income seniors who might otherwise end up living on the streets or in unlicensed homes. “Our elders are not sick enough for state assistance, not wealthy enough for private home care, and not well enough to live alone,” says L’Don Sawyer, chief executive officer.

Locally owned and operated, St. Luke’s Home is an Eden Alternative elder community committed to creating a “human habitat” where life revolves around close and continuing contact with plants, animals and children. Self-determination is encouraged and supported, and a council of elders makes many of the rules. Developed by geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, the Eden model is structured specifically to combat “the three plagues of aging”: loneliness, helplessness and boredom.

St. Luke’s Home is also a learning lab for aspiring medical professionals. It’s academic partnership with the University of Arizona brings students from the nursing, pharmacy, public health and medical colleges to St. Luke’s to conduct clinics and present programming aimed at better understanding elder health.

“As elders transition into assisted living, we want to help them move into an environment that makes them feel like they are creating a new life with new choices, not losing the old one,” says Sawyer. At St. Luke’s, a desert tortoise named Daisy Mae roams the grounds along with a playful black lab, and birds chirp away in their cages, creating a comfortable, homey atmosphere.

Residents are expected to be able to perform the functions of daily life, ambulate with minimal aid such as a cane or walker, and be at least 55. They may have assistance with self-administration of prescribed medications.

St. Luke’s Home is not-for-profit and non-denominational. There are 64 units. Rents and service fees are determined on a sliding scale based on income. Residents have an average monthly income of $1,000, which goes into the pot, except for $100 a month in pocket money. Also provided are three meals a day and some transportation. An applicant couple may have income up to $29,040 annually; a single applicant may have income up to $25,380. Applicants may have assets; however any interest or dividend income is factored into the annual income. There is a waiting list.

Charitable contributions make up about 40 percent of St. Luke’s $1.2 million annual budget. Volunteers of all ages are welcomed and put to use to everyone’s benefit. An annual ball is held in Tucson to raise much needed funds.

St. Luke’s care license was recently expanded to allow the provision of personal care services, which include hands-on assistance for daily living activities like showering, toileting and grooming. Without the license expansion, 30 percent of St. Luke elders would have been forced to move out with few options on where to go. But the added costs to St. Luke’s in 2016 were substantial, including $40,000 in additional staffing and $15,000 in additional housekeeping.

With the increase in the hourly minimum wage in Arizona to $10 on January 1, 2017, St. Luke’s is facing an additional $17,000 annual cost for its hourly workers. St. Luke’s has historically paid its workers more than minimum wage and will continue to do so.

“St. Luke’s Home is proud to expand its services to include personal care, and proud also to pay its hardworking employees what they are worth,” says Sawyer. “With nowhere to pass along these and other additional costs of service, St. Luke’s is working hard to increase its fundraising so that all elders in the region have the option to live in safe, secure and beautiful surroundings where people come to live and continue to grow.”

In Tucson’s Pima County, population nearly one million, a wide range of assisted-living options exist for the 8 percent of elders earning $100,000 or more a year. But those options narrow dramatically for the 46 percent of Pima County residents who earn less than $30,000, says Sawyer.

The residents of St. Luke’s Home are a fortunate few.

Contact St. Luke’s at 520-628-1512.