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Low-Income Seniors Want To Age In Place, But Face Many Challenges

Esther Honig
John Bruhn with Christmas in October inspects the home of 77-year-old Susie McGee in the Ivanhoe neighborhood.

On a muggy afternoon in June, John Bruhn drives through Kansas City’s Ivanhoe neighborhood, reading the house numbers out loud until he sees No. 3735. With a clipboard in hand, he walks down the path to a small, yellow house and knocks at the front door.

Bruhn is here with Christmas In October, a Kansas City organization that performs free home repair for veterans, people with disabilities and low-income seniors. Today Bruhn’s inspecting the homes of applicants to determine who qualifies for their service. In October, teams of volunteers will return to the selected homes and fix everything from leaking pipes to broken window and failing furnaces.

Susie McGee, 77, answers the door. Wearing a Hawaiian-print blouse and slippers, she invites Bruhn in to take a look at what she’s listed on her application: a broken light switch, a leaky shower and a toilet she says is too short.

“I have arthritis,” McGee tells Bruhn. “When I sit down, it’s a problem with me getting up. That’s why I had to put my walker over it to help me out.”

McGee is a widow living on a fixed income. She can’t afford to hire someone to make these repairs, and she doesn’t she have the physical ability to do it herself. Like many seniors in her income bracket, McGee is quickly aging out of her home and is relying on this organization to help her out.

Bruhn says the goal of Christmas in October is to do whatever they can to help these seniors stay living at home. A retired contractor, Bruhn has been doing this work for the past 30 years. He says many senior would rather live in a house that’s falling apart than relocate to a nursing home.

“I’ve seen people who were 95 years old heating water up on the stove to put in their bathtub to warm the water up,” says Bruhn. “I’ve had lots of people who don’t have a working furnace. They heat their house by turning on their stove and opening the door.”

Each year about 1,000 people apply to the program, but Christmas In October can only help about half of them. And this need isn't isolated to Kansas City. John White is from Rebuilding Together, a home repair organization that operates nationwide. He anticipates that this need will continue to grow everywhere.

“When you combined the aging population, and deteriorating housing stock," says White. “The need for home repair services is just going to increase.”

White also sees an economic advantage to keeping low-income seniors living at home. He says if you can prevent more people from going into institutionalized care,  you can lighten the burden on Medicaid. A bed in a nursing home typically runs $5,000 to 6,000 per person, per month.

Jacqui Moore, from the Mid America Regional Council, agrees that keeping low income seniors living at home is best. But she’s not convinced it will save any money.

“As my grandfather used to say, ‘Ain’t no free lunch.’ Everything everywhere is paid for by somebody,” says Moore. “Like Meals on Wheels. We provide home-delivered meals as the Area Agency on Aging. It’s free to you. I still got to buy the food.”

In addition to Meals on Wheels, there are dozens of nonprofits that support low-income seniors aging in place. If you can no longer drive a car, there’s free transportation. There’s a service for nurses that will visit you at home. There's even a volunteer that will come clean your house for you. These programs are filling an essential gap, but Moore says it’s about giving everyone the ability to age with dignity, and for many seniors that means living at home.

“One of the things that was most important when we were growing up was the quote-‘middle class’ status,” says Moore. “How is that defined? Homeownership, and that’s a mark of success.”

Moore says, if homeownership means success, many seniors view leaving their home as a failure. Often their only alternative is to live in public housing or a subsidized nursing home. It’s an option many don’t look forward to, and the wait list for a room can be up to three years.

For McGee , living anywhere but her Ivanhoe home would be hard to imagine. She says she spent 30 years working at laundromat to pay off her home.

“It means everything to me,” says McGee. “It’s something I can call my own.”

McGee has someone else to think about too, her 16-year-old great grandson who lives with her. If she had to leave her home, he’d have nowhere else to go. For now, McGee says she’ll do what she can to continue to age in place.

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