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Local agencies seek ways to keep seniors independent, at home

Susan Frick Carlman
Naperville Sun
The baby boomers aren't getting any younger.

There's no place like home.

That's why, as the nation's population gets older, more communities are paying attention to measures that might help people stay put. Known as "aging in place," it involves navigating the hurdles that can render seniors unable to remain independently in their homes as their needs change.

"Sometimes it's hard just to get sheets on your bed, or you need help getting out of the shower," said Re Kielar, marketing director for Visiting Angels of South Elgin, which provides help with "the normal things that you do, that you want help with" around the house.

For others, she said the challenge might be something like getting a ride to meet friends on a regular basis.

Health woes have tried to get the better of Mary Ogilvie, 82. She said she faced five bouts of cancer, the loss of both legs and the death of her husband — who had Alzheimer's disease — in about three years.

But she has remained in her Oswego home with help from Doris Fowler, her caregiver, who comes by a couple of times each week for about three hours. They sometimes go shopping or to the library.

"She is a true blessing," Ogilvie said. "So far she just has helped me immensely over the years."

Ogilvie is able to cook for herself and take care of her own grooming needs, but Fowler's presence for just those few hours each week makes a world of difference in her independence.

"Aside from the physical part of getting me someplace, the social part of having her with me is what I call the life force," she said.

Needing a little companionship and help around the house isn't the same as being helpless, and Kielar said it's important to act before the help is necessary. Some seniors, she said, put together portfolios that itemize their anticipated needs and how they would like them met.

Finding or retaining a suitable place to call home is often near the top of the list. Jim Hill, who is studying housing issues as a member of Naperville's year-old senior task force, said some simply like where they are.

"They like their home, they like their neighbors," said Hill, noting that financial concerns sometimes create pressure, particularly when income has stagnated. "A lot of it is taxes. Taxes are high."

In some cases, it's the home itself. He said a couple in his neighborhood, now in their 80s, have found the stairs are more difficult than they once were, but their viable alternatives are few.

"The community and the market are still oriented toward the middle-age family," Hill said.

Lucia West Jones, executive director for the Northeastern Illinois Area Agency on Aging, said residential construction increasingly is adhering to "universal design" principles that put structures in place that are friendly to all ages. That means electric outlets are located a little higher than their traditional placement, so people using wheelchairs or walkers can reach them more easily. Curb cuts ease access for people having more trouble walking than they used to and are also appealing to adults pushing strollers and people riding bikes.

"Communities have to be livable for all of their residents in order to succeed," Jones said.

Communities that support living in place also make proactive decisions at the local level. Hill, who is working on policy recommendations for Naperville, said nearby communities that already place emphasis on affordable living for seniors have seen it can spark controversy. Section 8 housing, like the Rose Terrace apartment that Ogilvie calls home in Oswego, isn't always greeted with open arms.

"Everybody says, 'Subsidized housing is great, just don't put it in my backyard,' " Hill said.

Although Hill said Naperville might be working behind the scenes on increasing its senior living options, to avoid competition from neighboring towns, he and other task force members have been talking with potential developers about age-targeted housing that offers such features as attached garages and single-story floor plans no larger than about 1,400 square feet.

"They say, 'Yeah, it's a great market. The challenge we have in Naperville is finding the land,' " he said.

One location the task force has identified as a good candidate to redevelop for senior residents is the former Public Works Department building on Fifth Avenue east of Washington Street. Now being used for storage, the site is near public transportation and the downtown shopping district.

"There will be challenges with that, with the opposition from the neighbors," Hill said, but he thinks they can be addressed. "I think it's a good opportunity for the city to develop some more affordable housing. They can make it work because the city owns the land."

Yet another alternative to institutionalized care is home sharing, particularly for seniors who own large houses. Rather than sell and move, they take on housemates who also no longer need as much space as they once did.

"You can age in place and be the only person in the house and still have problems," said Karen Courney, co-chair of Naperville's senior task force. "As long as you respect one another's privacy, it can be done."

For those who no longer drive, availability of options for getting to doctor appointments, grocery stores, church and other destinations is key. Many who lack nearby family members need to look to resources in their communities.

Fox Valley Older Adult Services has a program provided through a partnership with the Voluntary Action Center, based in Sycamore. Participants pay a suggested $1.50 per trip, but Cindy Worsley, the agency's executive director, said no one is denied a ride because of an inability to pay.

Another model is the volunteer-driver program Escorted Transportation Service Northwest operated out of the Arlington Heights Senior Center. Seniors are asked for $12 round-trip donations for rides to a variety of medical appointments.

Other communities in the region work with local taxi companies, using coupons or vouchers that cut the expense in half with the balance subsidized by the municipality. Already in place in Downers Grove, Lisle and Elmhurst, the programs are "very successful," according to Jane French, who has been studying transportation issues for Naperville seniors.

"The unmet need in the area is enormous, primarily for seniors who need to go to doctor appointments, grocery shopping, to church," French said.

Her subcommittee has looked into other forms of transportation, including Lyft and Uber and public transportation services already in place, such as Pace bus and Ride DuPage, which offers shared rides via bus or taxi.

"What we know is people live healthier in their own homes," Worsley said. "So the services we can provide really are a huge savings to the state."

Most of those approaching their senior years, she said, are making mindful decisions that support successful aging.

"Certainly people are changing the way they age. Baby boomers by and large have changed everything we do," said Jones, of the Agency on Aging. "Most of us want to be in charge of the decisions that are made about us, around us."

Visiting Angels' Kielar noted that decision-making is different from what it was a generation ago for seniors as well as their families, many of whom are living under conditions that have changed significantly since then.

"We're all working," she said. "It's not like the days when we were home and cared for generation after generation."

At 82, Irene Karp says her "marbles are still rolling around," but some things are more difficult than they used to be. So she gets a hand with her daily routine from her daughter, Gloria Carroll, who lives about three minutes away from her Sandwich home.

"She provides my food for me, helps me take a bath, helps me get dressed," Karp said. "If it weren't for her, I'd be up a creek, so to speak."

Karp said she's lived in the same place for 28 years.

"And I'm not about to move," she said. "Not if I can help it."

scarlman@tribpub.com

Twitter @scarlman

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