This program makes aging in place easier and more accessible for seniors

In 2015, the Bath, Maine housing authority created the Comfortably Home program after seeing the maintenance challenges faced by the elderly and those with disabilities in continuing to live at home.

“We kept hearing that the accommodation wasn’t working for the residents, but they didn’t want to leave. They’d say, “The only way you’re getting me out of here is to be feet first in a pine box,” said Bath Housing chief executive Debora Keller. “Meanwhile the waiting list to be placed in Bath Housing units was two years long. We had to do something to help residents live more safely and longer in their own homes.”

The small Bath Housing program has been working on about 300 homes in the coastal Maine city of 8,760 people. The idea has spread statewide and has been replicated in 14 of Maine’s 16 counties, sparking the idea for a national effort called the Home Modification Program for Older Adults by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Keller said.

Comfortably Home installs handrails and shower seats, repairs stairs and windows, provides weather protection, upgrades lighting, and installs carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, among other things. House entrances such as stairs or ramps are also repaired, allowing for a safer exit. Finding contractors and financing the renovations were the biggest obstacles for people doing the upgrades themselves.

“I pride myself on the elegant simplicity of this program. It’s so easy and such a breeze. People don’t quite know what we’re doing, but it’s spreading across the country and we’ve created a simple model with a low barrier to entry,” Keller said.

Bath’s Comfortably Home scheme has allowed residents to age in their own homes, which has eased pressure on public housing benefit waiting lists, which in turn has allowed housing authorities to help those most in need, Keller said.

“It’s a low-cost, high-impact program,” Keller said. “In a negative world and negative time, we are inundated with gratitude and gratitude. In one case, the resident primarily wanted to be able to go outside. Suddenly, with our help, that person could go outside and listen to the birds and look at the flowers.”

Read: Most people want to grow old in their own home – what does it really cost?

On average, the program spends about $2,500 on upgrades and security improvements for each home. The typical customer is 66 years old and has a median income of $15,942. To qualify for the program, a resident must be over the age of 55 or disabled and earn less than 80% of the area’s median income or less than $49,000.

The Comfortably Home program has also seen a significant reduction in the number of self-reported falls and hospitalizations since the program began. At the national level, falls are a serious health and economic problem. According to the CDC, 28% of adults age 65 and older report falling every year. This results in approximately 36 million falls each year. About 37% of those who fell reported an injury that required medical treatment or restricted their activity for at least a day.

Falls in adults over the age of 65 also cost money. About $50 billion is spent each year on medical expenses related to nonfatal fall injuries and $754 million related to fatal falls, according to the CDC.

Read: Aging in place is even more difficult in small towns or rural areas

Prepare homes for an aging population

The need to improve, upgrade or renovate homes to allow people to age there is critical.

Less than 1% of US households have features that enable people to age safely, according to Rodney Harrell, AARP vice president of family, home and community. And eight out of ten people aged 50 and over want to stay in their own homes when they get older, according to AARP.

“Houses, by and large, are not primed for aging,” Harrell said. “The biggest obstacle is the mindset. We Americans tend to be very adaptable. In this case, that could hurt us because the people who are willing and able to plan ahead are better off. They want to think ahead for times of crisis.”

The top places to look for security improvements are entrances to homes, bathrooms and kitchens, Harrell said.

“Everything that was built in the past years and is still being built today does not take these problems into account. People still build small doors on bathrooms or closets or even front doors that are not wheelchair accessible. The list goes on,” said Brian Pape, co-chair of the Design for Aging Committee for the New York section of the American Institute of Architects.

Pape said when looking at home security, start on the street and see if the resident can safely get into their living space from the sidewalk or car. Clean up rooms inside to create sufficiently wide passages for people with aids such as walkers or wheelchairs. Hardware changes to doors, windows, cabinets and walls, such as Things like grab bars, for example, can make a big difference in how easily a resident uses their home, he said.

The market potential for the home renovation industry is huge. By 2034, 77.0 million people will be aged 65 and over – more than the 76.5 million children under the age of 18.

Findings from a national healthy aging survey suggest that many people in their 50s, 60s and 70s need to do more to remodel their homes or plan for services they may need if they want to avoid or delay moving. The survey also reveals differences in willingness to age in the workplace among the 28% of older adults who responded to the survey living alone.

Overall, 88% of people aged between 50 and 80 said that it is very or fairly important to them to live in their own home for as long as possible. But only 15% said they have given much thought to how their home needs to be transformed as they age, while 47% have given little or no thought.

About 34% said their home definitely has the necessary features that would age them, and 49% said they have at least one “smart home” device. While 88% had a downstairs bathroom and 78% had a downstairs bedroom, which could reduce the need for climbing stairs and the risk of falls, fewer older adults had other characteristics, the survey found.

For example, 32% reported having grab bars in the bathroom, and fewer than 10% had safety-focused technology such as alarms on their stoves or personal emergency call systems. Only 7% said they had an accessible shower, and 9% said it was difficult to use the main rooms in their home due to clutter or large amounts of possessions, according to the survey.

In 2021, to meet the needs of the growing senior population, Lowe’s partnered with AARP to launch a product line and educational program called Lowe’s Livable Home. Lowe’s aims to be the one-stop shop for items for seniors and people with disabilities by offering everything from shower grab bars to non-slip floors, wheelchair ramps and walk-in bathtubs.

Livable Home came about after Lowe CEO Marvin Ellison struggled to retrofit his father’s home so he could safely age in place. Ellison realized that if he, as a hardware store CEO, and his father struggled with these issues, the larger baby boomer population must be struggling with similar issues, he said CNBC.

Ellison also told CNBC that the market is worth about $32 million in revenue and is very fragmented.

Home Depot has a similar line of products called Independent Living.

While the changes that are allowing seniors to age in place range from small tweaks like adding grab bars in a shower to major renovations to make a bathroom or kitchen fully handicap accessible, the possibility is sure staying at home is invaluable to many seniors.

“I feel safer and more confident in my home. What they did – they did so much – made me feel safe. It’s a wonderful program,” said Joan Smith, 83, of Bowdoinham, Maine, of the Comfortably Home program. “What I like most is that they are bringing railings from my deck to the ground so now I can go outside and feed the birds. You can’t beat that.” This program makes aging in place easier and more accessible for seniors

Brian Lowry

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