A Dubois assisted living facility aims to give independence to the state’s growing aging population
On a Friday morning, Sue Harbison is getting her hair done before heading out to lunch in Lander with friends. As her white-blond hair gets lathered, a song by the Beatles plays on a small portable speaker next to the reclined salon chair. The tune brings up memories of seeing the iconic band live at Red Rocks with her father Walter.
“My dad was cool, he always did nice things,” she said. “‘Daddy, I want to do this!’ And he’d do it, as long as I didn’t break any rules.”
But Harbison’s not at your average salon – she’s at Warm Valley Lodge, an assisted living facility in Dubois. The facility offers a full calendar of possible activities for its residents – including twice-a-week visits to an in-house salon to get their hair styled and nails painted.
Through community-building activities and an abundance of flexibility, the facility aims to create a community that respects autonomy and independence – all in the hope of supporting Wyoming’s rapidly growing population of older residents.
Harbison is in her early 70s and grew up in Arkansas. The former schoolteacher identifies as an “old hippie” and exudes enthusiasm as she talks about concerts. Her daughter lives in Jackson and Harbison moved to Warm Valley as she started having some problems with her memory.
“I got my hair done – what else? Where am I going?,” Harbison asked Mo Miller, one of the staff helping to paint nails at the salon.
“You’re going to Lander,” said Miller.
“With you?” asked Harbison.
“No, with Louis,” said Miller.
Although Harbison might need the occasional reminder, she’s lived quite an adventurous life, with a dad who worked for an oil company and had a passion for flying small planes. From her stories, it’s clear that there’s a lot she has no trouble remembering.
“I love Wyoming, I love India, all the places I’ve lived, San Francisco,” she said.
Harbison is one of eleven residents who currently live at Warm Valley Lodge, where the motto is “Life Celebrated, Independence Respected.” The facility provides cooking, cleaning, programming, and medical support for the people who live there.
Out in the spacious, light-filled entry room, Dick and Kathy Hodge are sitting next to a large stone fireplace in big comfy armchairs.
Before the couple moved in almost four years ago, Dick was actually the president of the board of Warm Valley, which opened in 2013. Dick, who’s now 89, said that back then, the two never thought about living there themselves.
“But then my knees were going bad, and you were having trouble doing a little walking,” he said.
For Kathy, her favorite part of being at Warm Valley is simple.
“Being served three meals a day,” she said. “I'm done cooking.”
Kathy said the in-house chef makes menus with three or four different choices for each meal and that the menu changes every few weeks.
The two met in Iowa just after graduating high school and have been married for a long time. Dick said having each other has been a big source of support.
“She's put up with me for 68 years, so we kind of help each other on whatever we need or whatever we think we need,” he said.
The couple still have a car and attend Warm Valley’s exercise classes and weekly happy hours. Dick said their transition was surprisingly easy.
“You're right next to the big Wind River and you've got geese right outside your door. It fits us and I think it would fit a lot of people,” he said.
He adds that he thinks a lot more people in the area could benefit from living at Warm Valley – and there are vacancies at the facility. But, he recognized that people have to be mentally ready to make the change.
“You keep trying to persuade people, but it's not easy. People in Wyoming are very independent and it takes them a while to think about that kind of change,” he said.
Wyoming’s senior population is on the rise. According to a 2023 report from the Healthy Wyoming Aging Coalition, more than 16 percent of the state is currently 65 and older. And that demographic has grown nearly 50 percent in the last decade — way more than any other age group.
With 13 open rooms, Warm Valley has the space to help meet the needs of the state’s aging population. But, as Dick said, independence is important to seniors – which is why the facility really wants to support that autonomy.
Marcy Leseberg is a big part of that. She grew up in nearby Crowheart and understands that living in rural Wyoming requires a lot of self-reliance. She said it's hard for some to even think of going to an assisted living facility.
“They go screaming and fighting and kicking, they don't want to leave their home. That's the hardest part. They need to be taken care of but they're like, ‘I'm not leaving my home’,” she said.
A big part of bringing more people to Warm Valley is making sure they’ve got plenty of fun things to do – which is Leseberg’s job as activities aide.
“It’s not easy on them, because they’re moving from their home and giving up a lot of things in their life and moving into a little apartment. But that’s where we come in, we try to make it so it’s not so hard on them,” she said.
Leseberg plans all the outings and gatherings, which include playing bingo, going on scenic car rides, and listening to live music at the Dubois Museum. She said the car rides were especially important for the residents during the COVID pandemic.
“That’s where the car rides became good for them, because we could at least get in the car and go for a ride and get out of the building for a little bit,” she said.
Leseberg said she’s always open to suggestions about fun things to do and that the residents give input about what they want to see during a monthly meeting.
“I just try to think out of the box of what if I was that age, what I would want to be doing,” she said.
After lunch, Leseberg and a few residents head out for a drive to Three Lakes, an area at the base of the Wind River Mountains about ten miles outside of Dubois.
The car winds along a bumpy Forest Service dirt road through open fields of sun-gold grass. Jim Janak is one of the residents along for the ride. He grew up in Idaho and said he moved to Warm Valley from Jackson about three years ago.
“I’ve got a son that lives in Jackson, and I moved to Jackson to be by them. Then I was staying in Legacy Lodge out there and it closed up, so I came over here,” he said.
Janak is mostly quiet for the first part of the drive. But as Leseberg pulls the car up alongside a group of mule deer and bighorn sheep, they both light up.
“You guys, I'm so excited!” Leseberg shouted.
“Look at that one there, there's a nice ram there,” Janak said.
People snap photos of the bighorn sheep, which delicately balance on the steep slope right above the car. A few rams sport big curling horns, and on the opposite side of the road, about ten mule deer peacefully munch in an oat field.
As the car inches along, Janak points out bucks with three and four-point racks. He’s got an eye for spotting deer half-hidden in the tall grass, and seeing the animals seems to open up a box of memories for him. Janak shares a story about having a conversation with elk out in the mountains on a hunting trip.
“I bugled and they'd bugle right back, but I never did see them. I bugled to them for about 15 minutes and they’d just answer me just soon as I let the bugle out,” he said. “And the next morning when we got up, there were elk prints all around the tent.”
The ability to spend time with the wildlife and landscapes of Wyoming is important to Janak. He goes on every scenic ride he can – and he doesn’t have plans to stop anytime soon.