Nearly 90% of seniors say they want to stay in their homes, according to AARP. Yet, just 4% of homes are considered "age friendly." The lack of often simple modifications to bathrooms, kitchens, entryways and stairs leaves seniors at greater risk of falls, isolation and loss of dignity. Pat Lund, Age Well At Home program manager for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, has witnessed the thrill of reclaimed independence among older people gifted with easy yet lifesaving additions. Those opportunities will grow with a just-announced $836,000, three-year Older Adults Home Modification grant from HUD. Lund talks about how the grant will make home indeed a sweet place for hundreds of homeowners.
Q: Congrats on the grant! Let's start by stating your overall mission, which I believe is to help older homeowners remain in their homes as long as possible?
A: When we visit older homeowners and we ask them, "How long would you like to stay here?" most say, "As long as I can." Sometimes they say, "Until someone has to drag me out of here." They are so connected to their home and community, and there are not a lot of affordable alternatives.
Q: I'm guessing that most people think of Habitat as the homebuilder for people who are moving out of housing insecurity; mostly singles, couples and young families. Yet you also are experts in installing home modifications. Does it surprise elderly clients when you approach them with this additional service?
A: We are constantly explaining that, but it's a nice problem to have. It's great to be part of the Habitat brand. We can elevate both creating and preserving homeownership.
Q: How do you begin the process of determining what they need?
A: We try to take a person-centered approach. We want to hear their story. We ask them to tell us what's going on. Maybe they have difficulty taking a shower or getting down to the basement to do laundry. We want to figure out how we can help them so they feel safer doing these things. They're the expert on their journey and we come alongside them to help them.
Q: So, simple modifications often pay huge dividends?
A: To make a home "age friendly" is often quite simple. It might be the addition of grab bars or hand-held showers, extra railings, higher toilets, front-door ramps, improved lighting, installed nonskid flooring or added smart doorbells.
Q: You'll be funding modifications on 155 units. How do you define "unit" and how will you find your clients?
A: We're looking for seniors who own something, so it could be a single-family home, town home, condo or trailer. We're working with community agencies and community health workers who refer clients to us. For example, an occupational therapist at Allina might notice that a client could use grab bars. Our community collaborations are critical to our success.
Q: What is the average cost per unit that you estimate you'll spend?
A: The grant covers $1,800 per unit and we can do a lot with that: Smart lights that automatically go on and off, for example, or maybe a lift chair.
Q: How do you define low-income?
A: This program works with folks earning under 60% of the Twin Cities area median income, which is equal to $44,000. But for many, the average household income is about $25,000. These folks really have a need. But the need transcends income. They, and their families, are looking for ways to navigate the system: "How do I help my parents or grandparents? Can you recommend a good contractor?" We're trying to find creative solutions. It's better to change out a home than change out an address.
Q: Are most of your residents single? Married?
A: Sixty percent are single adults and maybe 25% or 30% are couples; the remainder are people who have an adult child helping them out. Many times, that adult child is coming over a few days a week.
Q: Is this the first time you've received a grant of this size from HUD?
A: This is the first time we've received a HUD grant for this type of work. We've also received grants from the Department of Health and Human Services and other community organizations, but we're constantly piecing together funding to make this work. We are one of five affiliates piloting this around the country. We're trying to create a model that is impactful, sustainable and replicable.
Q: Do you have some comparisons of the cost of assisted living vs. staying in one's own home?
A: Monthly nursing care can cost as much as $10,000 a month. Assisted living is in the $5,000 to $6,000 a month range. Staying at home with home-delivered meals and home modifications can be as little as $1,000.
Q: Do you plan to follow up with homeowners after the pilot is completed?
A: We will follow up four months after we make modifications and then after a year, to see how folks are doing. Have the changes been effective in preventing a fall? Have they been able to reconnect with community? Our experience is that people feel relieved. This new trajectory gives them hope. They can stay in their community, stay connected with neighbors and loved ones. That gives them meaning in life.