Bath Housing Keeps Seniors Home

Once, when Lorena Thombs was about 10 years old, she recalls sitting on her sled at the top of a snowy hill in a Portland neighborhood. At the bottom of the hill a gang of older kids linked elbows, trying to intimidate her into abandoning her sled run. They didn’t know Lorena. She gave her sled a push and went flying down the hill straight toward the gang, crashing through them and sending them flying. “They never tried that again,” she says with quiet amusement.

It must have been just that nerve and pluck that Lorena summoned more than six decades later when she fell and broke her hip early one morning at her home in Bath. She lay there hoping it was soft tissue damage (she’s a nurse by training) but knowing from the pain that it was probably something worse. She managed to pull herself back into her bed and lay there contemplating her options. She lived alone. The phone- and the bathroom- were both downstairs and she had to get down there. So she maneuvered herself back over to the stairs and, grasping the wobbly railing, slowly got down to the first floor where she called a neighbor to open the door for the ambulance crew.

Lorena’s fall is a nightmare scenario for any older person living alone, and for their families. A few metal pins and a short stay in a rehab hospital soon had Lorena’s hip on the mend, but her comfy old house with the bedrooms upstairs wasn’t really set up for someone with a dodgy hip, and she didn’t have the money to fix it up. Her four adult children were pressing her to move to a smaller place that she could manage better and where she would be less isolated.

Reluctantly, she agreed to let her youngest daughter schedule an appointment for her at Bath Housing Authority, which provides subsidized housing for people with low incomes. “I love my house. I know the floors go up and down and the carpets are old, but it’s my place and I love it,” Lorena says. Her next door neighbors are also dear friends, and she wasn’t really ready to leave, which turned out to be a good thing. At their appointment they learned that Bath Housing had at least an 18-month waiting list for apartments.

This happens pretty frequently says Debora Keller, Bath Housing’s Executive Director. Elderly people understandably put off moving from their long-time homes until they’re forced to by illness or injuries, but then they find out that they may wait 18-24 months for a Bath Housing apartment to come available (in other areas of Maine the wait can be up to five years). What to do in the meantime?

Luckily for Lorena, Bath Housing was able to offer a short-term solution that could help keep her in her own home until she got to the top of the waiting list for an apartment. In 2014, with input from residents, the board, and a housing needs assessment, Bath Housing designed the Community Aging in Place (CAP) program. It’s designed to make small improvements to the homes of people who are elderly or disabled that can make a big difference to their safety and independence.

At no cost to her, Bath Housing would fix Lorena’s shaky handrail on the staircase to the second floor and bolt a second one to the wall so she could use both hands and stay balanced on her trips up and down. Replacing broken treads and adding a new handrail to the basement steps would help her use that staircase safely as well. New lighting in the kitchen would help her see better when cooking and cleaning. And through a partnership that Bath Housing established with Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers, new plastic window inserts would keep the house warmer in the winter and cut down on heating costs. Lorena was happy and her kids were relieved. “I’m good for at least another year,” Lorena told me.

In a previous post I wrote about how we Mainers are getting older, and how lots of seniors want to stay in their homes as they age. But it can be expensive for someone on a fixed income to put in a ramp or replace windows, or enlarge doorways so a wheelchair can fit through. Even if you have the money, finding a trustworthy contractor to do the work can be hard. My mom lived alone almost right up until she died in 2014, but she had her friend and handyman Danny to mow her lawn, shovel her work, fix faucets, stack her wood, and take care of all the dozens of other chores living in a house requires. Without Danny she wouldn’t have been able to stay in the house that she loved and we’d have been faced with some hard choices.

Bath Housing’s CAP program can’t take the place of a Danny, entirely. But it’s an inexpensive investment with huge pay-offs in terms of avoided costs, and it makes people happy! It’s a win-win-win-win-win.

Consider: Bath Housing averages around $850 per homeowner it assists in the CAP program, which includes about $250 for materials and $600 for the repair work, administrative costs, and follow-up at three and six months. Added to that is an average of $1,900 per house of donated labor and materials from CAP partner Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers. So the labor and materials for assisting the average house in the CAP program is $2,750.

It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much money that saves in avoided costs, but here’s a short list of ways it could help save money:

  • Reduced heating costs from window inserts or other insulation- this improves comfort and quality of life as well;

  • Preventing falls that result in ambulance rides, emergency room use, and short term hospitalization which could cost thousands of dollars;

  • Preventing injuries that require recovery in rehab hospitals and physical therapy, which again runs to thousands of dollars depending on the issue and the length of stay;

  • Delaying or preventing altogether having to move to assisted living or a nursing home for higher levels of care.

All for less than $3,000? That’s a bargain! Amy Liechty, CAP’s Program Coordinator, told me that one of their clients had fallen eight times in the six months prior to getting help from CAP. In the six months since he got help he has fallen only once. That’s a lot of expensive ambulance rides, injury care, and possibly hospitalization prevented by a little bit of help. Not to mention the improved quality of life for the individuals involved and less worry for their families. Bath Housing is collecting lots of information on its costs and benefits. It would be interesting to compare them to a similar group of people that didn’t have access to something like CAP.

Right now the program is privately funded but it will be difficult to sustain that over time. Ultimately, this is an area in which it makes sense to spend tax dollars. I know that’s not a popular position in LePage land, but it will actually pay for itself through reduced use of emergency services and health care. As Deborah Keller points out, stable housing is health care. Our houses can protect and shelter us, but they can also make us sick or cause injuries if they aren’t well maintained or set up for our changing needs. “It’s amazing the conditions we find people living in,” says Kathy Smith, Development Director for Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers. “Actually, disheartening would be a better word. We’re finding that we can buy them another year or 18 months in their home before their medical conditions force a change. But that may really be all that they need.”

Lorena’s days of sledding down hills may be over, but for now, thanks to Bath Housing’s CAP program she can still live in the house where she and her husband raised their four kids. She’s on the waiting list for an apartment at Bath Housing and will move when that becomes available. Until then, her kids can worry a little less about her safety and comfort. I’m not sure how to put a value on that, but it seems priceless to me.

Anne B. Gass

For over 30 years I've advocated for and supported efforts to create housing that ordinary people can afford, whether they're buying their first home or renting. I think housing is a basic human right; without a safe place to call home it's pretty tough to raise a family, go to work or school, or plug into your community...




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