Dennis Nelner took care of his mother, Madeline Nelner, for several months before she passed away in 2018.
His mother, who was in her nineties when she passed away, enjoyed her independence and stayed in Fort Simpson until she needed to go to Yellowknife for medical treatment.
Before she left, it was common to see Madeline walking to the bank and to the store, often sharing a greeting along the way, as her house was located near the village’s main shops.
Nelner says his mother fostered an environment where people were welcome in her space and could feel at home.
“She’s always been a kind-hearted person and always had her doors open, whether it was for a meal or tea or to do a puzzle. Just to have company,” he said.
Dedicating his work to his late mother, Nelner plans to turn her former residence into an independent living facility – Ama’s House – that will allow seniors and Elders to stay in the Fort Simpson as they age.
The plan, first reported by CKLB, is to house at least six Elders alongside a room for a resident nurse or personal care worker.
Nelner believes a lot can be done in the NWT to accommodate Elders and individuals with mobility issues.
“There’s a voice in the community that’s not well heard and it’s because they’re a small group, not so visible,” he said.
“A reason we’re doing this project is to allow people to still have independent living as opposed to going to long-term care.”
Nelner is planning to work with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to offer lower rates for people who use the facility, making it more affordable.
He wants the facility to be fully accessible for people with different mobility needs, a goal not often achieved in the NWT according to some advocates.
Nelner says he has the support of Fort Simpson’s village council and the Líídlįį Kúę First Nation.
More options needed
Allowing seniors to age in their own communities is a major challenge in the NWT and a priority for the current territorial government.
Nelner says Yellowknife – home to the territory’s largest hospital by far – can be scary for Elders who have to relocate for medical treatment. They must leave their families and community and may have little to no support system in the city.
“It’s a big barrier for family to go and visit and be there on a regular basis. It’s expensive,” he said.
When his mother had to move to Yellowknife, Nelner said, she found it hard to give up independent living and move away from family.
“Mum wanted to come home, and that’s the case for a lot of Elders living in Yellowknife,” he said.
Though Fort Simpson has a long-term care home, Nelner believes his planned facility will be consistently full.
He argues that if Fort Simpson residents don’t book every room, the vacancies will be filled by people from surrounding communities like Jean Marie River, Sambaa K’e, Nahanni Butte and Wrigley.
‘A template for future projects’
The federal program for which Nelner is applying provides money to help renovate existing properties for new uses that help the community.
He hopes other residents and organizations follow suit.
“Hopefully this could be a template for future projects,” he said.
“This project opens the doors for other opportunities. It could be a youth centre somewhere in a community or maybe a women’s shelter. A property can be converted toward that service.
“Instead of just having properties being derelict and eventually ruined over time, we can revitalize and rejuvenate them and give them a new make-up and use in the community.”