Peesh McClanahan and her husband Paul, both in their 70s, own their own home in Bath, Maine. 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.
Then she heard about a home modification program offered by Bath Housing Authority. It was primarily for people over 62 and 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 and possible solutions.
We heard a lot of stories and a couple of themes were overwhelming. 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.
Debora Keller/Bath Housing Authority
Debora 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.
A conversation with one of the maintenance technicians who took care of housing authority properties gave her more food for thought. He’d gotten 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. 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 to fall into place for Debora was a conference she attended in Washington, DC for all the housing authorities across the nation.
I started hearing about other housing authorities that were thinking outside the box and that there was a whole industry talking about the connections between health and housing.
Galvanized, on the airplane ride back to Maine, Debora designed a grant-funded program that would come to be known as Comfortably Home.
The reality is it’s the simplest program, ever. There’s nothing complicated about this. It’s not really even a new idea.
But it’s been a great idea and a great success for Bath. 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.
Modifications for Peesh & Paul
Peesh and Paul 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 that 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. 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.
Low cost, high impact
Comfortably Home is designed as a low cost, high impact program says Debora. The average cost of the homes they’ve done is between $1500 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 Debora would love to see more.
My interest is that anybody in Maine has access to some version of a home modification program. We’re working with Maine Housing, the Maine Council on Aging, and Senator Collins and Senator 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, especially Mainers.
Mainers are fiercely proud and stoic and resistant to asking for help. So often we hear people say, well, somebody else could use this more than me. We hear it all the time.
But Bath Housing has proven that providing even a little help can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
We come in, we help figure out the work plan, we buy the materials, we do the work.