Habitat for Humanity helps seniors stay safe at home

A safe, well-maintained home can be just as important to a senior citizen’s health as good nutrition and routine check-ups. A tripping hazard or long-neglected repair can lead to a trip to the emergency room just as quickly as a heart attack.

Meanwhile, ambulances are dispatched and the city’s healthcare systems spend resources on preventable emergencies.

Seniors tend to live in older homes, but the costs of critical repairs can often be too much on a fixed-income and they may not be physically able to do the work themselves.

“The need is only going to grow,” said Jennifer Molinsky, senior research associate at the Joint Center on Housing Studies of Harvard University.

“By 2038, a third of our households will be headed by someone 65 and over, and the number of households headed by someone age 80 or over will double. The need for accessibility and safety features will increase, as will the need for assistance with maintenance,” said Molinsky.

In 2015, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis launched the Aging in Place program to identify safety and structural issues in seniors' homes and make the necessary repairs or improvements.

Dwayne Spencer is president and CEO of Habitat Memphis. He said the seniors selected for the program live on roughly $12,000 to $15,000 a year. Repairs to their homes average $10,000 to $13,000.

“The families that we are helping, they have severe issues with their homes and they have a financial deficit that would not allow them to do it on their own. We don’t charge them anything,” said Spencer.

According to the 2020 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, just over 14% of Memphians age 65 and older live in poverty. That number jumps to just under 19% for Black seniors.

Over 1,000 low-income homeowners in Shelby and Fayette counties have benefited from the Aging in Place repair program.

“Housing and health are deeply intertwined," said Molinsky. "Helping older adults remain in their communities as they age can mean they are healthier and independent longer. This is good for all of us, and makes economic sense as well."

The Tennessee Health + Housing Summit highlighted the Aging in Place program as an example of a successful senior safety intervention. Habitat Memphis hosted the nine-session web series in January through early February. Over 40 national experts representing healthcare, philanthropy, community development, government, and academia participated in the series' panel discussions. 

“Our goal with the summit is to have deep conversations with experts around the country who are a little farther along then we are in Memphis with some of these progressive strategies,” said Spencer.

The discussions across the series outlined the current needs around senior home safety and public and private organizations using innovative solutions to improve senior health. 

“Habitat’s Health + Housing Summit itself is an important event that is drawing attention to the challenges older adults face in aging in their homes and communities,” said Jennifer Molinsky.

Molinsky manages the Harvard center’s reach on housing and aging and served as a panelist for the summit.

Over 270 individuals and organizations signed up for the webseries, which was sponsored by  Tennessee Housing Development Agency, Wells Fargo, and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

While the summit was well-attended, Spencer said success is marked less by the number of attendees and more by who attended.

“It’s the right people listening—policy makers in Memphis or in Nashville. Legislators across the state who have the ability to come together and try to make decisions with TennCare. And those folks that, if they care about saving money, maybe we can make the right proposition to them,” he said.

The summit was recorded, and Habitat Memphis will make the nine videos available here in early March. Each session is 90 minutes. 

The Aging in Place program just finished its most recent round of applications, but Habitat hopes to provide an update on those current applications and the next application period on March 19. 

In Support of Aging in Place
The summit also served to drum up further interest in Memphis' Aging in Place program.

At the end of the summit's last session, Spencer announced the Memphis Habitat chapter is committing to serving another 1,000 seniors over the next five years. They're current seeking partnerships for that work, which Spencer estimated will cost around $13 million. 

The program's original funding came from a $3.9 million grant from the Plough Foundation.

The home renovations are done by licensed professionals qualified to tackle tough repairs. Throughout the pandemic, Habitat has restricted work to exterior repairs, but they will return to indoor repairs as soon as it's safe to do so.

Costs are generally capped at $13,000 per family. If costs exceed the cap, Habitat tries to identify other sources of funding.

Weatherization is one of the most common repairs. Many low-income seniors are confined to one heated room during the winter months due to the cost of utilities or poor weatherization.

Other common repairs include structural improvements like a new roof, widened doorway, or installing handrails, ramps, and other accessibility features.

“By our measure, fewer than 4% of all housing units in the U.S. have basic accessibility features, like a no-step entry into the home; single-floor living, with a bedroom and bathroom on the entry level; and hallways and doors wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair,” said Molinsky.
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Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.