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Econ 919 — Peninsula's elderly population growing, but cost of living for seniors still high

Photo: Sabine Poux/KDLL

The Kenai Peninsula’s elderly population is booming.

But basics like housing and public transportation have not always kept pace. And what is available can be out of reach for many seniors.

Housing costs are high for Alaskans of all ages. But those costs are compounded for many seniors because they’re living on fixed incomes.

Fran Kilfoyle said she lives entirely on her social security. She moved to Kenai with her husband and six kids in the 1970s to find adventure and has called the city home ever since.

Today, she lives in low-income senior housing. She said there are long waiting lists to get into those apartments and the development next to the Kenai Senior Center.

“I would say that if a new development popped up, that it could be filled up before it’s even built," she said.

Between 2010 and 2020, the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s general population grew by six percent. But its population of residents 65 and older grew by an estimated 80 percent, according to data from the state Department of Labor.

Most of those seniors are on Medicare, which does not cover assisted living. And assisted living costs much more on average in Alaska than it does in the Lower 48.

“The private pay cost for an assisted living on the peninsula — the cheapest starts at about $6,000 and it goes all the way up to about $12,000," said Natalie Merrick, a Soldotna-based counselor with the Independent Living Center. The center works with seniors on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak to help them live more independently.

“I talk with folks a lot that move up from California or Florida," Merrick said. "And assisted living down there, from what I hear, is about $3,000.”

Merrick said transportation, too, is a sticking point.

The Kenai Peninsula has just one public transportation option — the Central Area Rural Transportation System, or CARTS. Seniors make up about a fifth of the clientele.

CARTS requires advanced reservations. Merrick says that can be challenging.

“I work with folks sometimes that have the beginning signs of dementia. So to do all of that is too difficult," Merrick said. "Also, a lot of the seniors that I work with are wheelchair users. So that’s the other issue, is that the vans are not all accessible.”

A spokesperson from CARTS said one van in the fleet is not accessible. It is used as a spare.

Local nonprofits and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe are also looking into adding to the public transportation options. Lisa Morley said that type of investment is crucial, especially for seniors who live on more remote parts of the peninsula. 

“So that seniors could get to their doctors’ appointments, go to the senior center, get meals, get around town," she said.

Morley is executive director of the Alaska Commission on Aging, an advisory board to the state on senior issues. She said the costs seniors face are not unlike those Alaska residents of all ages put up with — just on steroids.

Problems of that scale, she said, warrant big solutions. But Alaska’s historically been a young state. Senior issues are not front of mind for a lot of people. 

“We’ve been saying this for years," Morley said. "I started working in senior services in 2001. And our services really haven’t grown that much.”

There are some financial incentives for seniors to retire on the Kenai Peninsula, too. 

Although they’re higher than those Outside, living costs are lower on the Kenai than in other parts of Alaska.

The borough also has a real estate exemption for its senior residents who live outside city limits. That means they only have to pay taxes on home value above $350,000.

And there are a lot of senior centers here, even in the peninsula’s smaller communities.

Fran Kilfoyle goes to exercise and writing classes at the Kenai Senior Center. She said those classes and meals operate on suggested donations. 

“They don’t turn you away from anything,” she said.

Advocates say support for seniors, whatever form it might take, will keep more retirees in the state in the long run. Without it, they might have more reasons to leave than stay.

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that all but one van in the CARTS fleet is fully accessible for wheelchair users.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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