Islanders face eldercare crisis, hospital district levy hopes to change that

Many choose to live in the San Juans for its pristine beauty and the tranquility it provides. Medical services in the islands, however, have caused insecurity for some time. The islands’ public hospital districts were created to fix that problem.

On Nov. 2, San Juan Island residents will vote on a property tax levy in support of San Juan County Public Hospital No. 1. The district will request a levy of $0.70 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value in 2022 — an estimated $0.36 increase over the existing levy amount.

The public hospital district intends to use the increased levy funds to “purchase Village at the Harbor, add Medicaid beds and stabilize the Village workforce through improved wages and benefits.”

“Caring for the aging population in our community is in crisis,” Kathryn Clary, Louise Dustrude and Barbara Sharp wrote in the voter pamphlet’s argument in support of the levy. “Our only convalescent center closed in 2017. There are no adult family homes currently functioning on the island and a limited supply of in-home care givers. Right now, Islanders are limited to a choice of expensive private care (in home or at the Village) or a stressful move to the mainland.”

According to the support writers, the district envisions the Village at the Harbor will be a center to train home care aids and establish a provider system for islanders in need. With the levy funds, the district hopes to provide additional services to island seniors including light housekeeping; meal assistance; safety checks; resource referrals; medication monitoring; and more.

“I’ve watched over time, the increasing need for elder care in the setting of the home. And as well as in the setting of assisted living, and memory care. We have an unprecedented number of seniors that are going into their sickest years — the Baby Boomers,” Trish Lehman, hospital district commissioner and registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience in long-term care and 15 years in health and hospice, said. “So there’s an enormous population of people. There’s 10,000 people turning 65, every single day. And we don’t have the infrastructure to care for all these people.”

The lack of infrastructure to care for an aging population is not an island-specific issue — the mainland is struggling with it as well, Lehman noted. What makes the situation on the island more unique is that those facing serious health complications may be forced to leave their island home in order to seek care.

Lehman moved to the island in 1971, and throughout her years here she has seen the elder population increase exponentially. SMost of the elder population on the island gets their care from private caregivers, but those caregivers are stretched way beyond what they should be handling, she said — the island does not have enough of them.

Lehman said she wants people to keep in mind that you never know when a medical emergency could happen to you. While most prefer to receive long-term care in the comfort of their own home, there are some elderly residents who reside in the islands’ only assisted living facility, Village at the Harbor.

“Because we will be community-owned, we will now have the financial resources to provide these services for people,” Lehman said.

If the community comes together to support the public hospital district’s purchase of the Village of the Harbor, Lehman continued, it would contribute to measures that would prevent people from having accidents in their homes. Additionally, if the facility were owned by the taxpayers, staff wages and benefits would increase, she noted.

“I’m going to guess that 95%, if not all [of residents], would each say, ‘I never thought I’d have to be living here.’ Because what happens is it only takes one event to tip a situation into not being able to live at home,” Lehman said.

If Medicaid beds are available, Lehman explained, the state would help fund care at Village of the Harbor. Paying for Medicaid beds and eldercare without state funding is very expensive, she continued.

“If you don’t have savings to help fund yourself to find having caregivers come in, or you need to go into a facility because you need more care, you aren’t going to have the six to $9,000 or 10,000,” Lehman said. “I mean, it goes from … $5,000 to $10,000 a month. So if you don’t have that, who’s gonna take care of you?”

Lehman said she believes an aversion to increased taxes is the main reason why a voter may not be in support of the levy. With elderly islanders being forced to leave to find long-term care, she said these taxes make the tax increase worthwhile to island citizens.

“There are some people who absolutely have no idea that we don’t have the resources in our community to take care of our elderly population,” Lehman said. “We are in a crisis for caring for the elderly in our community.”

Voter’s pamphlet writers share Lehman’s sympathy for the island’s aging population and encourage voter support for the levy.

“[The levy and purchase of Village at the Harbor] will allow islanders to age in place by staying in their homes as long as is practicable,” supporters wrote. “It will be significantly cheaper to purchase the Village, an existing structure, than to start from scratch. Funds generated by this levy will allow the District to build viable, community-wend, long term care resources that will benefit San Juan Islanders; this is a win-win for us all.”