Making Homes Habitable
Several nonprofits know firsthand the problems facing senior homeowners and are working to help them. Rebuilding Together is one group tackling the challenges. The organization’s 206 offices nationwide enlist 250,000 volunteers each year to complete 10,000 home improvement projects, including the installation of wheelchair ramps, cabinets, and plumbing. Program staff and volunteers find seniors trying to live independently in homes that are too large, ill-equipped for the owner’s new physical challenges, or buried in clutter. Yet for every four applications Rebuilding Together receives, it can only help one applicant. Secord says those looking for help can check with their city government and local Area Agency on Aging or enter “senior home repairs” and a city’s name in a search engine such as Google or Yahoo!
While “in the big picture [Rebuilding Together]’s work is a drop in the bucket,” Secord says, “if it weren’t for our intervention, a home could be considered uninhabitable or unsafe. People are really caught. There are not a lot of options. We are often the agency of last resort.”
That was the case for Anne Gonzales, who had always turned to her husband for help when their home needed maintenance. But once Alzheimer’s disease began to take its toll on him, she didn’t know how to handle problems such as removing mildew and mold that were growing from an unsealed space between the home’s wall footings and slab. When water seeped into the backyard, as a temporary fix she covered the area with patio umbrellas and scraps of carpet. Then she added plastic plants, miniature lights, fountains, candles, and chairs and named the area “Anne’s Paradise.” In creating her paradise, she acquired nine couches, eight patio sets, and piles of clutter. It seemed impossible to organize until she called Rebuilding Together at the suggestion of a friend who had received help from the organization.
“When the volunteers came, I really felt blessed,” Gonzales says. “They really helped out a lot.”
Crissi Belasco, 50, was among the dozens of volunteers who removed two dumpsters of clutter from the house, painted the exterior, cleared the yards, and installed water diversion devices to prevent leakage into the slab. “It’s not too strenuous,” says Belasco, a county court reporter who has volunteered with her daughter, Olivia, 17, on eight projects. “Anyone who shows up is useful, and I would encourage people to show up because it changes your perspective on life. The volunteers get just as much out of this as the recipients.”
Olivia, a high school senior, says volunteering exhausts her, but has strengthened the bond between her and her mother. “After [volunteering], there’s a great feeling that I helped someone,” she says. “Everyone should experience this.” There are other alternatives to Rebuilding Together, although many may not offer as wide a range of services nor use volunteers. For example, the East Valley HandyWorker Program, which helps 150 families each year in a part of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, will install grab bars, paint, replace doors and windows, and perform minor plumbing and electrical work. City-approved contractors do the work, and recipient families are chosen based on age, need, and income. Those who need railings, ramps, and grab bars get priority. New clients get priority over those who have already received help.