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Heartland Assisted Living is located along Highway 212 north of Roberts, Mont. The facility includes farm animals, a fishing pond and a mini-golf course. Photo taken June 27, 2017. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Farm life adds to MT assisted living facility

ROBERTS, Mont. — Bob and Ruth Dubsky spent most of their 76 years of married life on their northern California ranch. But eventually the day came when Bob had to go into an assisted living facility.

"He begged me to do something, not to let him go in there," says John Dubsky, the grandson of Bob and Ruth Dubsky. "To let him down, it just killed me."

So he put everything he had into building an assisted living facility on a farm north of Roberts, Mont., within view of Red Lodge Mountain and a short drive from both Billings and Red Lodge.

Bob Dubsky died shortly before Heartland opened more than five years ago, and Ruth Dubsky, now 102, has been too frail to make the trip from California to Montana. But the facility stands as a legacy to the couple their grandson call "just incredible people." He wants older people to have what his grandparents didn't get to have — an opportunity to have assistance in an environment not so different than that to which they were accustomed.

"It's all about the quality of living," Dubsky said.

The regular routine for residents at Heartland Assisted Living includes heading outside to collect chicken and duck eggs. They might feed the two pigs, three cows and three horses, drop a line into the fishing pond or putt around on the miniature golf course.

"It's a wonderful environment for older people," administrator Dr. Christine Gerhard says. "And it just feels really homey."

Every detail of the facility, Dubsky explains, was inspired by his grandfather, down to the fruit trees he planted, remembering the time he picked peaches and plums on the California ranch.

Gerhard says the animals and outdoor activities provide engagement and exercise. Residents are encouraged to feed the animals, to walk the grounds or to sit outside on the decks off of each room and enjoy the views of the surrounding fields and pastures and mountains.

Many residents have found improved health there, Dubsky says. He tells of one man who had been bed-bound for years but eventually regained his strength to walk in part through feeding the animals at Heartland. Another, plagued with diabetes and given a short lease on life, lost weight through diet and exercise and was given the all-good to move back home, though he chose to stay at Heartland. Dubsky has taken residents fishing at Cooney Reservoir or hunting for elk or deer.

Gerhard says residents tend to be very healthy and require little more than medication assistance.

"Really, they're self sufficient except for the fact they just aren't quite able to live at home anymore," she says.

In fact, many residents see their medications reduced as they get used to living in the tranquil atmosphere at Heartland.

The residents have come from a variety of backgrounds. While some have lived on farms and ranches, others just prefer the surroundings to a typical city facility.

"Most of them just prefer to live in the country," says Gerhard, who has worked at Heartland for about two years.

The residents right now range in age from 66 to 91, though they've had a 97-year-old resident recently. Heartland has a capacity of 10 if two rooms for couples are filled, but there are five living there now.

Whether they come from a farm or a city, arriving at an assisted living facility isn't easy, Gerhard says.

"It's always problematic when they first get here, because they're used to being at home," Gerhard says.

The staff at Heartland strives to make the facility as homelike as possible to make the transition easier. The rooms are large, and residents bring their own furniture. There are several commons areas with cozy couches, televisions and country-themed decorations. Breakfast and lunch are cooked to order, and while dinner is communal, the staff doesn't make anyone eat something they don't like.

"If someone doesn't like what's on the menu, we'll cook something else," Gerhard says.

Residents get individualized attention like that for everything. The staff includes two certified nursing assistants who work 12 hour shifts. Gerhard explains the CNAs do more than provide care. They also handle laundry and cook meals.

"They do everything," Gerhard says. "It's like running a regular household here. It's not that institutionalized living."

"Heartland is the furthest thing from assisted living if you were just to walk in there," Dubsky says.

He gets calls and emails from around the world from people interested in living at Heartland or replicating it. The facility isn't a money maker, he acknowledges. But knowing that his grandfather's memory has inspired it makes it all worthwhile, he says.

"I can't even believe it," he says.

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