Program to help District seniors age in place faces uncertain budget


Volunteer (L) Lilly Van Liew, 13, talks with Betty Jean Jones as the group does clean-up work on her front yard. Young volunteers from the Charlottesville, Va. came to Washington as part of the Age-in-Place services program that did yard work for a local senior woman in NE Washington, D.C. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Standing on her front porch, Betty Jean Jones waved her cane at her scraggly bushes and overgrown front lawn, indicating what needed to be done. The fact that six energetic young volunteers stood ready with rakes, clippers and a mower was a blessing on a gorgeous spring day — but it was also crucial to helping the retired federal employee remain in the Northeast Washington home she has lived in since 1976.

In recent years, hip replacement surgery and arthritis have made it hard for Jones, who lives alone, to get around. As the volunteers, five students from a Charlottesville, Va., middle school and their supervisor, crouched on their knees pulling weeds, she shuddered to contemplate what she would do without them. “I couldn’t do this on my own, I just couldn’t,” she said.

But the program that brought them there — Home First, which is run by the nonprofit Seabury Resources for Aging — says that under the proposed city budget, it might not have enough money next year to continue its 20-year-old age-in-place component, which provides regular home help to about 300 older District residents in wards 4 and 5.

Home First, which also runs three group homes for low-income formerly homeless seniors in Ward 5, had for many years received a third of its budget from outside donors and sponsors, a third through small payments from the older recipients themselves, and a third from the District through its Office on Aging.

But in recent years, after some of its long-standing outside sponsorship dissolved, the program found itself running a deficit and turned to the city for additional help. Last year, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) found a one-time amount of $250,000 to help keep the program afloat. But that money was not repeated in this year’s budget, which senior service advocates say falls $3.5 million short of what is needed for community services overall. The council is set to vote June 11 on the budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, pending congressional approval.

If Home First — which has an overall budget of $627,000 — cannot find an additional $250,000 for the coming year, it will probably have to end its age-in-place arm, which costs $215,000 annually, said its project director, Regine Clermont. The money is used to pay for the aging-in-place administrative staff, maintenance and repair materials, and insurance and other expenses.

“I don’t know the future of the program,” she said, adding that she requested earlier this month that the council continue funding the program at the level it did this year. The program has a waiting list of 40 people, she said, adding that she had hoped to expand it into other wards.

Clermont estimated that Home First’s age-in-place program, which last year used nearly 3,000 volunteers to help with 379 service projects, saves the city more than $200,000 a year by providing services, such as lawn maintenance, that would otherwise fall into the city’s lap.

Last year, after seniors and their advocates rallied at city hall, the council increased the Office on Aging’s budget for home-delivered meals, ward-based case management, and upgrades to transportation services. All of these are included in the mayor’s proposed budget this year, as well as an additional $2 million for wellness programs and other senior services.

The proposed budget for fiscal 2015 had been $42 million; in a May 14 budget markup, the council’s health committee chair, Yvette Alexander, proposed an increase of $1 million for community services facing shortfalls, to be covered by shifting funds from another agency under the committee’s jurisdiction.

But the D.C. Senior Advisory Coalition, an umbrella organization for senior service groups, said the shortfalls add up to $3.5 million and they requested that the budget be increased by that much.

Among over a dozen agencies likely to face shortfalls are Home Care Partners, a nonprofit agency that provides home care services such as meals, housekeeping, personal care for people who are not eligible for Medicaid but cannot afford to pay for the services, and Downtown Clusters Geriatric Day Care, which provides full-day facility care for people with physical or mental disabilities, said Elizabeth Fox, coordinator of the coalition.

Some of these agencies, including Home First and Home Care Partners, have in the past year faced increased costs because of the Living Wage Act, which requires higher wages for employees such as drivers and home care workers, Fox said.

Home First’s age-in-place program is important to sustain because it is “a perfect example of a grass-roots response to a problem in every neighborhood in D.C. where older people struggle to do the maintenance required to stay in their homes,” Fox said.

“Other local programs come and go, but this one has been in place and grown,” she said, adding that Home First’s age-in-place program reaches more people than other similar services.

The Office on Aging said Monday in an e-mailed statement that its executive director, John Thompson, “is confident the Mayor’s proposed budget is sufficient.” The statement added that Thompson is aware of the concerns of Home First and the advisory coalition and said that “at present, there is no way to know whether Home First and Seabury will experience a funding shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year.”

A spokesperson for the Office on Aging said that after the budget comes out the office has the discretion to “reprogram” or divert funds from one line item to another item.

Sitting in her dining room, Jones said she receives services from different groups of volunteers provided by Home First every month or so. Behind her, the window was covered with plastic insulation that an earlier group had installed.

Such services, which cost her a fraction of what she would have to pay on the open market, have helped her stay in her home, she said.

“People don’t realize how hard it is if a person has to move and they’ve been somewhere all their lives,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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