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Safe aging for seniors

Brattleboro Housing Authority to implement new program

BRATTLEBORO—After eight years of studies into improving the quality of life for its seniors, the Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA) is in the early stages of implementing a pilot care program to launch January 2011.

The Seniors Aging Safely at Home (SASH) program, supports seniors living in their homes by building a team utilizing existing community organizations and resources.

SASH operates in the spirit of a mutual aid agreement between fire departments, where departments agree to assist each other in emergencies.

“With common communication, you develop creative programs and ways to address individual needs and aggregate them [to everyone’s benefit],” said BHA Executive Director Christine Hart.

Hart said the BHA wanted to set up a licensed assisted living facility in Hayes Court and Melrose Terrace. But, after investigating the prospect, she said the authority discovered it wasn’t financially sustainable.

Brattleboro has a richness of supportive services, Hart said. “Why should we duplicate them? We should make use of them.”

Vermont-based Cathedral Square Corporation in Burlington developed the program and recently finished a yearlong pilot program at its Heineberg Senior Housing site.

“[SASH is] really about collecting resources out there and not duplicating [each other],” said Cathedral Square Executive Director Nancy Eldridge.

She described the program as “person centered.”

Cathedral Square Corporation — originally founded in the 1977 as a ministry of the (Episcopal) Cathedral Church of St. Paul, but now a separate nonprofit — specializes in housing for seniors and individuals with special needs.

According to Eldridge, as Vermont’s senior population grows, so does its need for care solutions.

Also, seniors’ requirements for home care are growing, because the state does not plan to build more nursing homes as part of the Choices for Care program.

As a result, Eldridge said local housing authorities need ways to deliver care without relying on nonexistent financial or medical resources.

“We needed to develop a statewide solution that would work for everyone,” she said. “That kind of efficiency requires you [be able to] replicate the approach.”

Eldridge said residents at Heineberg participated in developing SASH.

“This is their home,” she said.

Hart and Eldridge agree housing providers often find themselves in a tricky spot.

Legally, they only provide housing and collect rent. Socially, however, housing authorities are many elderly residents’ closest support networks and the first to spot when someone requires help.

Eldridge has had residents return from the hospital to a Cathedral Square site after hours, at night, dressed only in a nightgown and carrying a paper bag full of prescriptions and locked out of their building because no one at the hospital communicated with the housing site.

SASH helps bridge this schism allowing housing authority employees to operate beyond the role of landlord without becoming trained medical providers.

Eldridge said the program has received positive feedback from doctors who appreciate knowing someone is helping their patients follow through on their recommendations like taking medication, exercise or nutrition. 

“They [medical and housing authorities] have someone to call,” said Eldridge. Before SASH, she said calling 911 was the primary option, regardless of the incident.

Eviction, said Hart, was a housing authority’s only legal recourse if a resident’s condition warranted a medical intervention.

“There’s so many [other programs] out there, it’s just a matter of connecting,” said Eldridge regarding including local housing authorities in residents’ care loops.

Eldridge used the example of a Vermont Nursing Association nurse calling the SASH coordinator at Hinesburg and asking the coordinator check if a resident had taken his or her pills.

That one phone call may seem small, but it saves a nurse who normally serves multiple, far-flung patients from driving out to the site. This frees the nurse to concentrate on other patients requiring higher levels of care.

Because of its success in Heineberg, other housing authorities have signed on to the SASH pilot program.

Rutland Housing Authority, Gilman Housing Trust, Bennington Housing Authority and Central Vermont Community Land Trust will all join Brattleboro as pilot sites. 

According to Eldridge, funding finalization is still in progress. Eventually, it will come through Medicaid and work into Vermont’s Blueprint for Health plan.

Eldridge said she and her housing authority counterparts will use the multi-site pilot to evaluate and hone SASH before rolling it out statewide.

Monitors from Harvard, the University of Vermont and The Institute for the Future of Aging Services will formally evaluate the program.

Eldridge said extending SASH beyond the Heineberg apartment complex and into the community as a whole, using the authority as a “hub,” is one goal for SASH.

First, however, the program must work under a variety of conditions and in multiple communities.

Hart said the housing authorities will have the opportunity to customize their SASH programs. The BHA plans to add a meals program and nursing services to its program in January.

“It’s exciting. It’s exactly what I think we should be doing,” said Hart.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #61 (Wednesday, August 4, 2010).

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