ROBERTS—John Dubsky decided to switch careers when it was time to move his grandparents from their ranch in Northern California to an assisted-living home.
That was in 2011. Dubsky, then a general contractor living between Joliet and Roberts, went to California to join other family members in helping their grandparents make the move. Dubsky remembered raising horses and breaking colts on his grandparents’ ranch, near Sonora, and he understood his grandfather’s reluctance to leave the place.
When they got to the assisted-living home, Dubsky recalled, his grandfather said, “this will be the death of me here. You expect me to move off my ranch and move into this?”
His grandfather also suggested that Dubsky, with his contracting experience, should be able to build him a place where he could be taken care of but still have a dog and be around other animals.
Dubsky said he thought to himself, “Maybe he’s right. He can’t be the only person who thinks like that.”
Dubsky was also motivated by having had an up-close look at nursing homes and assisted living homes during his years as a contractor. He said he built or remodeled more than a few such facilities, and in almost every case he was disappointed with what he saw, unhappy with the lack of personalized care and the institutional feel of the places.
His girlfriend, now his fiancé, Genovive Kitilla, a certified nursing assistant with years of experience working with elderly and disabled people, shared his disenchantment with traditional nursing homes. They talked off and on about what Dubsky’s grandfather had said.
“One day I came home and said, ‘Babe, you can do that,” Kitilla said.
And that was that. Dubsky bought the property across Highway 212 from his house, six miles southwest of Joliet, and began building an assisted-living facility, simultaneously studying to obtain his certification in health administration. He said he sold most of his possessions to finance the project. The final phase was paid for by the sale of his Dodge diesel truck.
Early in 2013, he and Kitilla opened Heartland Assisted Living, which sits on a 13-acre working farm where Dubsky raises hogs, horses, chickens, ducks and geese. Most of his clients live with pets and all of them are invited to feed the farm animals, gather eggs or work in a small garden.
That explains Heartland’s slogan—“Assisted Living on a Working Farm.”
Unfortunately, Dubsky’s grandfather died two months before Heartland opened. And his 100-year-old grandmother, he said, broke a hip and was deemed too frail to move all the way to Montana.
But as the CEO of Heartland—and the maintenance man, head chef and care assistant—Dubsky is proud to be offering to other senior citizens the kind of lifestyle his grandfather envisioned for himself.
Residents are encouraged to bring their dogs and cats with him, he said, and “I had one fella from Roundup, he even had his horse here.”
There are eight rooms, two of them for couples, and a big room that includes the kitchen and dining area, a living room and a sitting room around a fireplace. Dubsky built a fishing pond out front, with a picnic area on an island accessible by a bridge. There is also a lap pool, and most of the rooms have decks; all of them have private satellite television.
Residents can cook for themselves, but prepared meals are always available and are made from scratch. Dubsky does most of the cooking himself.
Margaret Woehst, a 91-year-old Georgian who moved to the area to be close to her daughter, tried another home first but told her daughter she had to get out, mostly because she felt trapped. She’s been at Heartland since the summer of 2013 and said “it’s entirely different. I come and go as I please.”
“They’re agreeable,” she said of Dubsky and his staff. “If there’s something I particularly like to eat, they’ll make it.”
Dubsky chuckled and added, “And if we don’t know how to make it, she’ll tell us.”
In addition to custom-cooking, Dubsky said he is willing to build to suit the needs of his residents.
“I customize these rooms for the people,” he said. “It might cost me 5- or 600 bucks, but it makes them happy.”
More than anything, he said, he offers his residents independence, “the most freedom allowable by law.”
Another resident, 81-year-old Joe Saatzer, moved into Heartland 2½ years ago, in a wheelchair he expected to use for the rest of his life. But Dubsky said he could see that Saatzer had muscle mass on his legs, so he started working with him, massaging his legs and encouraging him to stand and gradually put more weight on his legs. He now gets around in a walker and thinks he might dispense with that someday.
“At the hospital they said, ‘You’ll never walk again.’ Hell, I proved ’em wrong,” Saatzer said.
Dubsky encourages his workers—there is a farm hand and three nursing assistants besides Kitilla—to simply spend time with the residents, talking and getting to know them. He said he also takes them to the pig races at the nearby Bear Creek Saloon, and sometimes he’ll spend the day fishing with them at the Cooney Reservoir.
“I love it,” Kitilla said. “I love it every day. We do it with love, with all the strength we have.”
Dubsky and Kitilla met years ago at the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. Kitilla, originally from Tanzania, was living in Palm Springs, Calif., and was visiting friends in Columbus, who took her to the sale. Dubsky was there with friends, too, and he and Kitilla clicked as soon as they met.
Each of them had a son from a previous relationship and they now live with the boys, 7 and 8, in an apartment at Heartland. Dubsky and Kitilla finally got engaged a few weeks ago and are hoping to get married this fall. They are also thinking of building a cabin on some land they own nearby, just to be able to get away sometimes.
“We’ve been going at it seven days a week since this place opened,” Dubsky said.
He has been approached by people interested in buying Heartland, or in helping him expand. Dubsky said he could imagine opening one more, smaller facility on some land he owns in Columbus, but for now he thinks Heartland is a good size.
“I don’t want to hurt what Heartland is now,” he said. “If we can help 10 people at a time, that’s good.”
It’s also good for him.
“To be honest, it’s a lot harder work than contracting,” he said. “But it’s a lot more rewarding.”