CATCHING HEALTH by Diane Atwood: A way to keep seniors in homes

By Diane Atwood

BATH — Peesh McClanahan and her husband Paul, both in their 70s, own their own home. Trouble is they live on a fixed income and don’t have a lot of extra money for upkeep and maintenance or any work that might make it a safer environment for them. A few years ago, she was worried.

“We needed help. We really, really did. I was ready to move someplace. I was ready to downsize,” said Peesh McClanahan. Then she heard about a home modification program — offered by Bath Housing Authority — primarily for people over 62. As long as they qualified, any work that was done wouldn’t cost them a penny.
The program is the brainchild of Debora Keller. Soon after she became the housing authority’s executive director in 2014, she took a long, detailed look at housing needs in the community as well as possible solutions.
“We heard a lot of stories and a couple of themes were overwhelming,” Keller said. “One was that out in the community, people wanted to stay in their own homes. When we talked to the people who were already living in Bath Housing the theme was I couldn’t manage my house anymore or their needs outgrew what their house could provide.”
Keller also got an earful from her family doctor. She was in for a routine physical, but what she remembers most is what he told her about some of his other patients. “He was saying how they will often send a team out to an elderly patient’s home and discover that there’s all this work to be done. They’d come up with a list of things that needed to happen to have the person stay safely in their home, and then the patients would come back and say they didn’t do anything because they didn’t know who to call or didn’t trust any strangers coming into their house or didn’t have the money to do it. That was a pivotal piece to hear,” she recalled.
A conversation with one of the maintenance technicians who took care of housing authority properties gave her more food for thought. He had been called out on Christmas Day.
“I asked what it was, and he said it was one of the residents. She said her oven was broken and she couldn’t cook her Christmas dinner,” Keller said. “He went over to fix it only her oven wasn’t broken, but she was really lonely. That moment reinforced that not only is our team of maintenance technicians skilled, but they also have compassion and a gift for dealing with our elderly residents. And how do we harness that?”
The final piece falling into place for Keller took place at a conference she attended in the District of Columbia for all the housing authorities across the nation. “I started hearing about other housing authorities that were thinking outside the box,” she said, “and that there was a whole industry talking about the connections between health and housing.”
Galvanized, on the airplane ride back to Maine, Keller designed a grant-funded program that would come to be known as Comfortably Home. The program has been a great success for the area they serve. Since 2015, using its own staff, the program has made modifications for 125 homeowners. To be eligible, you have to own your own home within a 15-mile radius of Bath, be over the age of 60 or disabled, and have an annual income below $39,500 for one person or $45,150 for two people.
The McClanahans qualified. The program’s coordinator, who is an aging specialist, and a maintenance technician assessed their needs and their home, and this is the result:
* The maintenance technician lowered the kitchen cupboards so Peesh wouldn’t have to climb a footstool anymore to reach them. * He also put brighter lights in the ceiling fixtures so they could see better. * He installed pull-out drawers in the lower kitchen cabinets so they could both reach things more easily. * He installed the appropriate electrical line and plumbing so there could be a washer and dryer in the first-floor bathroom; no more going down to the basement. * He installed handrails in the bathroom and smoke and carbon monoxide alarms throughout the house.
“It’s a big, huge deal and it cost us nothing. I can do laundry when I want to do it and not go down those rickety steps,” noted Peesh McClanahan. “I can reach things and the light’s pretty good. I would trust them to go into anybody’s house. They’re professional, kind and non-judgemental.”
Comfortably Home is designed as a low cost, high impact program said Keller. The average cost of the homes they’ve done is between $1,500 and $2,000, including all the maintenance, labor, materials, everything. They can’t meet all needs, but they try their best. Other communities are following Bath’s lead. To date, six housing authorities around the state have their own home modification programs, and Keller would love to see more.
“My interest is that anybody in Maine has access to some version of a home modification program,” she said. “We’re working with Maine Housing, the Maine Council on Aging, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to move in that direction.
The Bath Housing Authority is also now collaborating with Midcoast-Parkview Health, which will provide medical intervention when appropriate. So far, they’ve helped five people. Bath Housing does safety checks, accessibility modifications and minor repairs. The hospital has its own grant and uses its medical team, social workers and occupational and physical therapists to work directly with patients. The hospital program is called Capable and is modeled after the Capable Project at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. Both Bath programs can be accessed through the Bath Housing Authority.
Asking for help isn’t easy for a lot of people. “Mainers are fiercely proud and stoic and resistant to asking for help,” Keller added. “So often we hear people say, well, somebody else could use this more than me. We hear it all the time.”
Yet, Bath Housing has proven that providing even a little help can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

For many years, Diane Atwood was the health reporter on WCSH6. Now she is a blogger and podcaster at Catching Health with Diane Atwood,