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Building for a familiar future

‘Barrier-free’ houses offer age-at-home option

Tuesday, August 25, 2009
By Jeff Wilkin (Contact) - Gazette Reporter

Helen never worries about the 6-inch-high step into the kitchen of her Merlin Drive home.

She leaves her bedroom, in the back section of the Niskayuna house, and easily walks to refrigerator and sink.

But that step might become more of a concern in 10 years, maybe five. Helen, a friendly, blue-eyed woman in her late 50s, is developmentally disabled. She could have trouble walking some day, she might need a wheelchair. And the 6-inch step will seem a lot higher.

Fredrick W. Erlich is taking steps to remove steps, and other architectural problems from homes occupied by Helen and other people. As chief executive officer for Living Resources, a state and federally-funded agency in Albany that provides care and shelter to disabled adults, Erlich is spreading the word about barrier-free homes. He also wants to raise public awareness about the need for new spaces for handicapped adults.

Erlich said the need is urgent. When Helen and her friends on Merlin Drive grow older, and can no longer safely maneuver the narrow hallways and small rooms, they could have to move into nursing homes. Erlich considers that a bad move.

“If they go to nursing homes, it’s going to cost more,” Erlich said. “It’s not going to be a home. Their families don’t want it, they don’t want it.”

“It’s very hard when you talk about an elderly person going to a nursing home,” added Bonnie Unser, Living Resources’ director of development. “But when you also mix in the fact that people are developmentally disabled, it’s an even harder transition. I was just talking to [resident] Tom. This is his home. This is all he knows.”

Barrier-free home

Living Resources, which serves 271 people with disabilities in 39 group homes and apartments in Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga, Rensselaer and Westchester counties, wants to build six barrier-free houses. The price tag will be $650,000 for each home, and the agency is seeking state funding to begin the project.

“As our residents age, they face more daunting challenges than other senior citizens because of their disabilities,” Erlich said. “Essentially, we have three choices: retrofit our existing homes, which is expensive, inefficient and provides only a band-aid solution; place individuals in nursing homes, which is more expensive over the long-term and emotionally jarring for many seniors; or build new energy-efficient, barrier-free housing that offers a permanent cost-effective solution and promotes the concept of independent living.” Living Resources houses 36 individuals in facilities that no longer meet their needs. An additional 31 residents are on a waiting list for upgraded and barrier-free housing. New houses would offer an open floor plan on a single level for optimum accessibility. Natural lighting, expanded bathrooms, automatic lighting and solar panel technology would be other pluses.

Living Resources also hopes funding from private sources materializes. The group is also looking into selling existing agency-owned houses and using those funds for new construction.

Leaving the ‘family’

Erlich’s major goal is to keep people in familiar surroundings. That didn’t happen with Joe, a Living Resources resident in Cohoes who fell and broke his hip this past winter. Joe had to move into a new house with fewer obstacles, accessible ramps and no stairs. But the man had to leave his home of the past 20 years, all his friends and familiar care-giving staffers. Joe hasn’t been the only one affected. The man’s friends at his former home know he has moved out, but are confused. For Richard and Shirley, both middle-aged, it’s been difficult for them to understand why Joe is no longer around.

“There are five people living here,” Erlich said of the Merlin Drive residents, “and they have lived together for many years — in some cases 20, others shorter. There’s a comfort level, and we’ve got a lot of long-term staff who take care of them and know them and they look forward to their coming in. I’ve seen the big hugs when Mary Ann comes for her shift; “‘We’re OK, Mary Ann’s here.’”

Mary Ann is Mary Ann Guy, a residential instructor. “It’s just like any family,” Guy said. “For the most part, they all get along. They look out for one another. If one’s not here, they wonder where they are.”

Residents all leave the house in the morning for day programs, When they return during the late afternoon, they gather for a family-style meal. After dinner, they occasionally sing or watch a movie together.

The tub has been removed from the bathroom, replaced by a shower area that gives the place more space. But Living Resources can’t do anything about the small living room in the 1970s-era home, and the possibility that some day residents in wheelchairs will be cramped during sing-alongs and television nights. Even the three concrete steps leading to the front door will become a risk, for infirm residents.

Aging in place

“I’m trying to say it as loud as I can,” Erlich added. “The physical plants — the structure of the house, the way the house is laid out — for many of these homes won’t work as people continue to age.”

An optimistic estimation puts six new barrier-free homes ready for occupancy in five years. “Realistically,” Erlich said, “Ten years.” He believes the state budget crisis has slowed down part of the process. Right now, Living Resources is trying to raise public understanding of the new homes’ importance. Erlich believes people can sympathize.

“I’m thinking we all need to highlight it, but it’s something the general public can easily understand because they understand the what they call the ‘tsunami of aging’ occurring in this country and throughout the world,” Erlich said. He’s hoping the new houses come soon.

“The aging process is continuous and Living Resources expects as many as 33 percent of our group home residents to reach the age of 60 over the next decade,” Erlich said. “Ultimately, our goal is to replace several of our existing group homes with enhanced barrier-free housing that provides high-quality care, lifetime placement and is the most cost-efficient approach to meeting the challenges of providing accessible housing to people with disabilities who require long-term care.”

Originally from the Daily Gazette

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