Fixing up seniors’ homes to help them age in place

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Hattie Watties sitting near a collection of family portraits in her living room in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

 

“You don’t think about that stuff,” said Hattie Watties, who can’t imagine leaving her Baltimore home of 36 years, that’s near children and grandchildren. “You just do what you have to.”

For Watties, 74, that meant climbing onto kitchen counters to reach too-high cabinets. Steep, dark stairs to the basement laundry only had a partial railing, so she threw clothes down and inched her way after them.

No more: Carpenter Tyrone White lowered Watties’ cabinets to a comfortable reach, installed railings, and showed how an energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulb provided more light than a regular bulb in the dim stairway.

In homes where it’s even darker, White sticks motion-sensing lights by each step to show where to aim your foot. They’re less than $15 for a two-pack and run on batteries, so no rewiring is needed.

The work that perhaps has the biggest impact seen so far is a double railing for stairs lets people rest their weight on both sides.

The handymen, employed by the urban service corps Civic Works, also insist on installing carbon monoxide monitors, which have detected leaking gas stoves in some homes.

Do these solutions really save money?

The four-month intervention costs about $4,000 per participant, including the home modifications and specialists’ salaries. The average cost for nursing home care in the U.S. is $6,700 a month, so even a modest delay could add up fast. Szanton will track participants long term and, based on results from an earlier pilot test of 40 high-risk seniors, hopes to delay nursing home entry by up to a year in this frail population.

For families, perhaps the bigger question is how long the solutions will last. Evelyn-Gustave teaches families to brainstorm options as new challenges crop up.

“We can’t be there forever. They need the skill to carry on,” she said.

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Online:

Capable project: http://nursing.jhu.edu/faculty_research/research/projects/capable

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