May 26, 2019
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Free home repair program helps Maine seniors live safely

BATH, Maine — Lorena Thombs, who is 72, thinks her house must be among the oldest in this historic shipbuilding town. But it’s not one of the elegant, handsomely restored captain’s houses in the downtown district. It’s a modest little place on the outskirts, long on character but in sore need of basic maintenance and upkeep.

Thombs, a widow, is recovering from a recent hip fracture. “My kids are concerned that I’m living here all by myself,” she said. “They want me to move into an apartment. But this is my home. I brought my family up here. The neighbors are perfect. I love it, and I want to stay here.”

To placate her worried children, Thombs has filed an application for a subsidized apartment managed by the Bath Housing Authority; there’s a two-year waiting list. But she’ll be able to stay safely in her own home for a while longer, thanks to the Community Aging in Place, or CAP, program, an innovative regional partnership of the Bath Housing Development Corporation, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter and the home health program at Mid Coast-Parkview Health in the neighboring town of Brunswick. The John T. Gorman Foundation, which supports a number of aging in place initiatives in Maine, has provided $156,000 in first-year funding, citing the project’s collaborative approach, sustainability and ability to be replicated in other communities.

After an initial evaluation to prioritize the needed work, a crew from the CAP program came to Thombs’ home recently and installed two bright fluorescent ceiling lamps in her dark kitchen, supplementing the weak, one-bulb wall fixture that has provided the only illumination for years. They hung new storm doors, mounted plastic window inserts and planed down the door to the shed so it latches tightly. They repointed the crumbling brick hearth under her wood stove to reduce the risk of a house fire. They replaced the rickety handrail on the basement stairs and rebuilt the uneven top and bottom steps. They installed a second handrail on the main stairway so Thombs has a railing for each hand. They installed two smoke detectors, complete with batteries. There was no charge for labor or materials.

“It’s wonderful. It feels like a new house,” Thombs said with a big smile.

The CAP program, based on a successful model in Baltimore, grew out of the knowledge that unsafe housing contributes to illness, injury and hospitalization among the low-income elderly, according to Debora Keller, executive director of Bath Housing Development Corporation. Yet many seniors prefer to stay in their homes as they age, or feel they have no alternatives.

“Safe housing is a form of health care,” Keller said. The success of the program will be measured by reduced rates of falls, hospitalizations, 911 calls and house fires.

Since October, the CAP program has completed 21 home improvement projects in the region at an average cost in materials of $1000 per job, covered by the Gorman foundation grant. The foundation recently announced additional funding for the next two years, and Keller said other grants and donations are also in the offing.

The biggest challenge, Keller said, is getting the word out about CAP and persuading eligible seniors to take advantage of the program.

“This is all driven by the homeowner; they have to initiate the call,” she said. “But this is a population of people who don’t necessarily want to ask for help.”

For more information about the CAP program, contact the Bath Housing Development Authority at 443-3116.

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