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Seniors and Housing Needs - Obtaining Assistance

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed

This article is copy protected and should only be reproduced by permission of the author. For information contact me at: .

     I sent out some emails recently. This is how I started each:

     "Urgent Request for Housing and Independent Living Support!"

     "Today, in this time of financial difficulty for many elderly and disabled Americans, I find myself needing current and comprehensive information related to housing and independent living needs. I am constantly being deluged with questions on my "help line" from seniors and folks with disabilities that are in dire need of assistance to:

1. Continue to make payments on a home despite financial hardships, (often relating to medical expenses)

2. In need of assistance, financial, in modifying their home for accessibility

3. Trying desperately to find assistance to keep a family member in their current home, (looking for personal assistants, medical care, etc.)"

     I wanted to write this article several months ago, outlining an easy-to-follow guide for securing this much-needed assistance. However, the outcome of this effort has not been as I expected. To be perfectly honest, this has been a tough nut to crack.

     This same challenge confronts tens of thousands of people across this country. Most of them are already isolated and have limited access to information on this subject. Picture this:

     You are seventy-five years old. You have been living in a rural community for the past twenty or more years. You are female, (most, but not all, elderly individuals writing me for assistance are widowed women). Your family has moved away, leaving you to meet basic needs with the assistance of perhaps a neighbor boy who has been helping to mow the grass or deliver groceries. You may attend noon meals at a local senior center or have them delivered to your home by an organization such as Meals on Wheels. Your social life might include occasional visits with peers in your "neck of the woods".

     You are on a fixed income, usually Social Security, but occasionally a small workers' pension. The cost of heat and electricity is zooming, ever higher, especially during the winter months. You are beginning to need an increasing amount of prescribed medications and routine healthcare visits are becoming more frequent. You probably no longer have private health insurance. Transportation has become an issue since you no longer possess a driver's license or a vehicle. Public transportation may be extremely limited or nonexistent in your area. You do have a telephone, a television, and if you are lucky, a computer that is connected to the Internet, but you may not know how to use it.

     You might be dealing with a problem that has become an epidemic in this country, mortgage payments. All too often borrowing money using the home as collateral has resulted in house payments being due on an ongoing basis, long after the original purchase was intended to be paid off in full. Money is used for everything from home repairs, to college funds for your children, to medical expenses not otherwise paid by private insurance. If payments stop, your house is gone!

     Mortgage payments can range from $100 to $300 each month! Medications can go as high as $400 and heating and electricity $100 to $300 per month depending on the weather. Food and other personal supplies usually come in at around $500 per month. And then there might be insurance premiums, co-payments, and other monthly expenses on top of that. If you are lucky enough to still own a car, gasoline, insurance, and maintenance costs must also be added to the mix. Most Social Security payments are at the $800 to $1000 dollar range. There is often little or nothing to spare.

     Now lets say a large tree limb has fallen on your house and has caused some structural damage, or your heating furnace has stopped working, or a window has been broken, or a wheelchair ramp needs to be built. You just don't have the money. Where do you turn?

     There are some small stopgap measures that can be found to help you conserve some of the money you do have. Lifeline telephone services may be provided for free. This excludes long distance calling, however. You can have your house weatherized by heating fuel and electricity providers in some cases. Members of a local church congregation or volunteers from a senior citizens center may take it upon themselves to assist with transportation and some food expenses. This type of help must be requested, however. It does not just come to you. Personal pride must be pushed aside. A lifetime of contributions to family and community has not guaranteed the security promised in that great "American Dream".

     In this country, there is supposed to be a built-in safety net for those with limited incomes and significant needs. However, obtaining what few resources that may be available is time consuming and often frustrating for those seeking them out. Many do not even know where to begin.

     Before writing this article, I decided to contact representatives of social agencies in each of the fifty states. I found that most states have a Commission or Agency on Aging. They have a general description on their website that goes something like this: " ...the older people of our state are entitled to equal opportunity. They should have adequate income, enjoy physical and mental health, suitable housing, employment without discrimination, retirement, community services, freedom and independence, and initiative in planning for themselves."

     I sent each of these agencies an urgent request for assistance, listing the three areas of need I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Of the 50 state agencies I wrote, only 15 responded! This in itself was an horrific revelation. If you could not get information from a state agency, who else would you turn to in your hour of need?

     On the federal level there is the Department of Health and Human Services which hosts the federal Administration on Aging, ( However, on the matter of Housing here are the exact words found on the AoA website:

     "There really is no place like home. When asked about their preference for housing, most seniors answer, "What l would really like to do is to stay right here." The person's own home represents security and independence to most Americans.

     Most housing, however, is designed for young, active, and mobile people. To live at home, a person must, at the very least, have access to transportation, go shopping, cook, and do household chores. Many of us will lose one or more of these abilities, as we grow older.

     One option is to purchase in home services, to cope with declining abilities. For a fee, an army of workers will appear to cut your grass, wash your windows, cook your meals, do the shopping, and even provide personal care and/or skilled nursing care. This may be the option for you, depending on the amount of help you need. However, this can be expensive and will require a lot of management and coordination.

     For people willing to relocate, there are plenty of options, although there may be some confusion about what all the terms mean. You may hear about "board and care homes," "personal care homes," "life care" and "continuing care retirement facilities." All refer 'to some type of "assisted living" or service-oriented housing."

     This informational site then goes on to link you to information about the ALTERNATIVES! It does not direct you to resources that might be made available to allow you to stay in your own home!

     The truth is that government spending continues to be funneled into private nursing homes and other group home type services. The trend towards independent or supported living is still in its infancy as an institutional model goes. Although there is a great deal of talk about the cost-effectiveness and politically correct nature of keeping people in their own communities and, whenever possible, in their own homes, in reality, the system just is not in place to support the concept.

     Having said this, I would not want to completely discourage folks from maintaining their independence. Every state and every community is different but may have some resources that can be made available. It will take some detective work in many cases, just to figure out whom to talk to in your area.

     Here are some tips that were passed on to me by Vicki Hicks Turnage from down Alabama way. For those who may be:

"Continuing to make payments on a home - seek out Community Action Agencies, Churches, Civic organization such as Lions Clubs, Civitans, Emergency services organizations, or disability organizations that provide emergency supports through stipends or cash subsidies.

In need of assistance, financial, in modifying their home for accessibility - there's HUD, (, Farmer's Home, Fannie Mae (all have rehab money as loans to an individual based on income), most states have Medicaid waivers that allow for modifications of home for individuals with disabilities, some states also have state administered programs that provide a one time stipend that a person could use for this purpose.

Trying desperately to find assistance to keep a family member in their current home, (looking for personal assistants, medical care, etc.) - Most states have Medicaid waivers that assist with this. Also, home health agencies and disability organizations can provide this."

     Local Senior Citizen centers may be the easiest way to get information about your community's services for the elderly. Tell a case manager what your need is and let them help you sort through some of your local options. If you do not have a case manager, ask about getting one.

     Check with your local government officials for housing and assistance programs and services. In general, County Social Service and Health Departments have contracts with, and lists of, local service providers (nonprofit agencies) that deliver an array of services to low-income seniors and persons with disabilities. Local planning or housing departments often have programs to assist income eligible applicants in modifying their homes to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, (ramping, grab bars, light alarm systems for the deaf, etc.). The typical source of funding is the federal community development block grant program.

     The United Way will usually have some kind of directory of service providers if there is a branch in your area. Faith Based Organizations, (FBO's), are becoming more prevalent and now may be receiving federal funds to assist individuals in need. A few of these include: the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Church Army of God, Lutheran Social Ministries, Gospel Missions, and others.

     Most states have regional centers called their AREA AGENCIES ON AGING. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, (, provides information on the work of these agencies and other senior resources. This is a good starting point for gathering information about state and federal assistance. In the Independent Life Resources directory I have two pages of "State Specific" resources. If you go to the listings of your individual state you may find one or more agencies that deal in assistance to the elderly or aging population. Often states have a department of Health and Human Resources, which may include offices, divisions, or agencies focusing on elder issues. Also you may refer to your telephone directory under the "government" headings for state and local contact numbers.

     The Eldercare Locater is a nation wide listing of many programs and services specifically for senior citizens. Their website can be found on the Internet at: (

     In most cases, you will need to write letters, explaining your situation. You will need to keep track of who you have contacted and when, in order to coordinate the process. Often agencies will refer you to other agencies, caseworkers will refer you to other caseworkers. You must be able to follow the trail wherever it takes you.

     When corresponding always include the following information: your name, address, age, social security, Medicaid, and Medicare numbers, and insurance carriers if you have them. In as simple a manner as possible, explain your situation and your individual needs. Let the people you are writing to know of any other agencies or organizations you are working with on your issues. Always make copies of letters and emails you send and receive!

     On a political note, this is an issue, which will not go away soon. More and more Americans will be looking for some level of support in their golden years. This is an area of need that must be examined, more effectively planned for, and an organizational system needs to take shape to make our resources more available and easier to access. If we can go to the moon, replace hearts in surgery, and create a massive government program almost overnight, as we have done with the Department of Homeland Security, it should not be an impossible task to prepare for and provide support for the frail and dependent in our society. The fact is that we will all fall into this category one day, regardless of how much we may have contributed to the world in which we have lived.

     Most societies afford a great deal of dignity and respect to the elders of the village.

     I would like to give a special thanks to representatives of those states providing me with information for this article. They included: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

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