Deep roots |

Deep roots

Nicole Michaels
for Tri-State Livestock News
Resident Hazel Alger, a former cattle rancher from Roundup, MTontana, bottle feeds a calf. Photos courtesy Heartland Assisted Living

This Thanksgiving, the residents of Heartland Assisted Living will sit at the table and eat some of the food they helped to raise.

Even daily meals include vegetables, pork, and poultry harvested right on the property outside Roberts, Montana.

CEO John Dubsky wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Taking care of the animals and working in the garden is something we all look forward to,” he says. “We are a working farm and we are moving more and more toward self-sufficiency.”

“I have a place to live, and they love me. They do everything they can to see that I am happy.” Hazel Alger, Heartland Assisted Living resident

Where much of elder care has become institutionalized, at the Heartland, it’s agriculturalized.

Sure, there’s a golf course and a lap pool – but there’s also a couple of barns and a pasture, as well as stocked ponds for fishing.

A 10,000 square foot residential building accommodates a maximum of 10 residents and also has room for an activities center. Suites are located close to a great room with a wood burning stove much like they might be in a private Montana home.

Views of the Beartooth Mountains are softened by walnut brown sheer curtains in the common area. Big game is mounted on one wall.

The furniture is arranged in an intimate and relaxed way.

Hazel Alger is holding a Town Pump to-go mug and finishing her lunch on the couch, watching the news. Her hearing aids are safety pinned to a ribbon around her neck. She is wearing a necklace her grandchildren made and a tidy red and white checked shirt. Her legs tucked under a blue velour blanket.

Hazel and her husband Charles moved to the Heartland a couple of years ago. Her husband has since passed away, but the couple ranched in Roundup, Montana, so the Heartland was a natural for them.

She’s helped bottle feed a calf since arriving.

“I don’t feel like I’m hard to please,” Alger says.

It’s a cold windy day in this part of Montana and nearby Red Lodge is getting snow. At the other end of the facility, 91-year-old Woehst has parked her walker on an overstuffed sofa in front of gas logs. She is getting ready to watch The 700 Club.

An Atlanta, Georgia, native, Woehst came to the Heartland at age 89.

It allowed her to be near family while being independent and still getting the care she needed.

Woehst says she had tried another assisted living but it didn’t suit her. “I was only there for three weeks and I told my daughter ‘Get me out of here.’ Then my daughter was in Roberts one day and saw a van with the Heartland name on the side and I’ve been here ever since.”

The Heartland meets more than just her clinical needs.

“I have a place to live,” she says, “and they love me. They do everything they can to see that I am happy.”

On a warmer day, Woehst might be outside gathering eggs, or petting the first heifer in what Dubsky hopes will make a cow herd.

This time of year, the farm is down to two breeding sows, having sold or put up meat from the rest of the hog herd. The chickens are up for the winter, the ducks are still outside and “Clarence” the turkey might make it through the holidays without being butchered.

“He’s a little fat,” confesses Dubsky.

Even a resident who is an avid hunter has been accommodated.

“I’ve taken one resident hunting four or five times already this year,” Dubsky says.

Residents may bring a special dog or cat to live with them. If they like, they can bring an old horse.

The goats didn’t work out – they kept eating up the landscaping – and sheep aren’t yet in the plan.

On the clinicial side, there is 24-hour nursing care and Billings Beartooth Clinic is 15 minutes away. Transportation to medical appointments is provided, and Hospice care is available.

Private decks dot every room. A handicapped shower along the main hall is appointed with earth tone tiles and warm paint, and it looks more like a master bath than a nursing home shower.

That’s all by design, Dubsky says.

“The average nursing home or assisted living, you go in and this is white and that is white and it’s just all white. It’s too sterile. We wanted a place where people would feel at home.”

The suites are named like guest cabins: “Oak,” “Cottonwood,” “Spruce.”

Most of the floors are carpeted. “A lot of people told us ‘You can’t put in carpet, what about people in wheelchairs?’ But it works great and it’s just so cozy.”

It was Dubsky’s own personal journey that planted the seed for Heartland.

His grandparents had farmed in California, and as they aged they needed some help. Dementia was starting to set in, and they weren’t eating properly or taking their meds.

The elder Bob Dubsky prodded his grandson to build something for them. “He would tell me ‘Just build me some place by you where I can bring my animals.’”

After several conversations and watching his grandparents struggle to adjust, Dubsky came up with a business plan. “It dawned on me that if they were having this problem, others were too.”

Dubsky’s wife Genevieve had worked in health care for years, and made the perfect partner.

Construction began.

Dubsky, who lived near Roberts, sold his own place and bought the property on Highway 212. “I had a friend help and we worked seven days a week from the day we closed on the property until we finished. We were just a few months shy of finishing when my grandfather passed away.”

Ruth Dubsky is 100 now, and she may yet move to the Heartland.

Heartland celebrated its third anniversary this fall.