Merriam-Webster defines “senescence” as the state of being old, or the process of becoming old. And becoming old doesn't always conjure positive connotations. To Liz Rolle, however, aging is beautiful, and the inspiration behind the company she started in 2018. Liz established Senescence Care Assisted Living after getting her Masters in Public Health from The University of Montana, and discovered that Missoula is woefully lacking in services for the aging community.
During her schooling, Liz worked with the Missoula Coalition on Aging and Disability (M-COAD) now known as Dementia Friendly Missoula. One of the projects she worked on was mapping out resources in the area for people with cognitive deterioration. The intent was to provide referral information to practitioners around the community so they could better serve aging patients, especially those with dementia and other age-related cognitive decline. What Liz found was that housing for people in need of memory care is nearly in a state of crisis here.
“The aging process is as varied as the Montana sky is wide. Unfortunately, our local housing options do not match the spectrum of needs for this demographic,” said Liz.
Services for aging individuals in Missoula are limited to senior living apartments for the fairly independent, skilled nursing facilities for those with medical needs, and locked memory care units for people with significant cognitive decline or who are at risk of wandering.
Less abundant, and fairly unknown, is a fourth type of care: small-home assisted living. Many of these types of homes around Missoula were established when one owner had to quit a job to take care of an aging family member but they still needed to earn an income. Therefore, they decided to house additional seniors who would benefit from such living arrangements. State licensure is required in order to offer these services. There are several regulations about the building itself, including an annual inspection from the fire marshal. The owner must keep detailed records of each resident’s diet and medicine management and a state surveyor makes a random visit at least once a year to ensure all requirements are met and all records are accurate.
Through her research for M-COAD, it became obvious to Liz that of the different types of facilities for the aging population, the small-home model offers consistently superior results to folks with minimal to moderate cognitive decline.
“People who still have a lot of vibrancy are often misplaced into a home where they are expected to be too independent, or to a home where they lose their autonomy. This small-home model allows people to maintain autonomy while still getting the care they need,” said Liz.
Liz debated the benefits of building from scratch versus purchasing something already built but nothing she saw seemed to fit her requirements. Finally, an almost perfect house became available in the Upper Miller Creek area. Liz and a group of her friends and family immediately began cleaning, painting, and making modifications in order to best meet the needs of the future residents.
St. Thomas House was established in March of 2018 under the Senescence Care Organization. It opened with just one resident but soon came to be home to seven individuals. Some were no longer safe living alone and others just wanted the comfort of living at home without the responsibility of running a household and without putting any burden on their children. The residents enjoy private bedrooms, a comfy living room, a quiet den, and a spacious dining area and kitchen. They have flexible schedules and space to work on projects or hobbies. They can participate in cooking and cleaning, or they can sit back and be catered to. Unlike many of our senior population who become isolated in their own houses, the residents at St. Thomas House always have plenty of options for socialization.
The small size and intimate nature allows staff to establish close relationships with the residents and pick up on changes in behavior which might indicate a health concern. They are also able to keep closer tabs on folks who might be at risk of wandering, thus promoting a safe living environment without stifling oversight. Apart from the care provided to the residents at St. Thomas House, one of the biggest rewards that Liz receives from running Senescence Care is the peace of mind that she is able to offer to the families who have entrusted her with their loved ones.
Branching out from solely resident care, Liz also recently obtained licensure to include senior day services. Similar to daycare for the elderly, this is an opportunity not only for caregivers to have a bit of respite from the stress and demands of watching over their loved ones but it also provides an opportunity for a person to get out of their house and socialize with others in a safe environment with staff that understand the specific needs of caring for a person with cognitive decline.
Liz hopes to open more homes like St. Thomas House in the future and she continues to keep a proactive approach toward caring for our aging population here in Missoula and establishing resources to support them and their caregivers in order to maintain the highest level of independence and the best quality of life for as long as possible.