Jeannette Reese, 67, was sure that she could improve the bathroom in her Springfield home by removing the "hideous" old wallpaper and painting the walls herself. "But when I got the paper off," she said, "I found the plaster wall underneath the paper had water damage."
Reese, who has had three heart attacks, promptly called a Fairfax County agency that provides free home repairs for elderly homeowners with limited incomes. Within a few weeks, a county work crew arrived at the garden-style condominium she shares with her son Michael, 33, who is blind.
"They fixed the wall and painted and put a grab-bar in the tub because I have arthritis and I have difficulty getting in and out of the tub," Reese said. She called the repair work beautiful.
Throughout the Washington area, local governments are providing free home repairs, low-interest loans and other help to elderly and other low-income homeowners such as Reese. Officials say a key aim is to help elderly people remain in their own homes as long as possible.
"We feel it is much better for the people and for the county, because it's cheaper than having them go into nursing homes," said Jeremy Novak, administrator of the Fairfax program.
Specialists in problems of the aging say that home repair programs are expanding throughout the country because of increases in the nation's elderly population and efforts to help older people live independently in their own communities. Only a limited number of nursing home beds are available, officials note, and providing additional beds would be costly.
"Home repair for the elderly is important because the houses in which they live are getting older, along with them, and the plumbing is starting to go and the roof is starting to go," said Carolyn Carter, a planner with the Fairfax County Area Agency on Aging.
This deterioration typically comes at a time when houses may need modifications to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and other special equipment, she said.
Elderly homeowners often are "house rich and cash poor," Carter added. They may own their house, but have a small fixed monthly income that barely covers basic living expenses. "When you have to eat and pay for your medicine, painting the ceiling is not the first thing on which you spend money," she said.
Elderly homeowners may have trouble finding repairmen for small jobs, such as caulking a tub to prevent leaks or installing a handrail in a bathroom, Carter said. Major repairs present other hurdles for the elderly.
"They are afraid of ripoffs," Carter said. "Along with aging comes the loss of a spouse, and a single homeowner who hasn't had to deal with these things doesn't know where to turn or how to go about arranging for home repair."
In Fairfax, the county government provides low-income elderly homeowners with up to one week's worth of work and $500 in materials for home repairs. Financed with a federal grant of $190,000 and administered by the county housing department, the program provides repairs for about 70 homeowners a year.
In the District, the D.C. Office on Aging pays up to $1,000 to have a licensed contractor repair a low-income elderly person's home. The D.C. Council recently approved a plan, sponsored by council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), to provide low-interest loans of up to $5,000 to low-income elderly residents.
Last year, 126 elderly people received help from the D.C. Office on Aging program, officials said. Among them were Frank William Lacey, 96, a retired maintenance worker, and his wife Mary, 87, a former domestic worker.
The Laceys have lived in a two-bedroom house in Northeast since 1947. Last year, an electrical short circuit blew out the lights on one side of the house. "The old electric box in the basement had to be removed and replaced. They put in a new circuit breaker," Mary Lacey said. "There was a little wait to get the work done, but we are very pleased with what they did."
In Prince George's County, elderly homeowners have benefited from a new $160,000 water and sewer assistance program, which provides septic tank systems, wells and bathrooms for low-income homeowners whose houses lack indoor plumbing. Work has been carried out at 16 houses, and five applications are being considered, officials said.
"Our first was Alice Brooks, who had never lived in a house with running water," said county Housing Director Lynda Given. "Her house was old and heated with a wood stove, but well maintained, neat and clean."
Brooks, 88, and her daughter Fannie Graham, 67, live in a rural area in the southern part of the county. "We've been very satisfied," Graham said. The new indoor plumbing and bathroom cost about $15,000, officials said.
Montgomery County provides low-interest loans of up to $30,000 to finance major improvements such as roof and furnace repair to bring a house into compliance with safety codes, and to modify a house to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.
Those loans are available to any low-income homeowner, but are especially beneficial to the elderly, said housing chief William Sher. "We can tailor the terms to meet their needs, including deferring the payments until the property is sold or changes hands as a result of death," Sher said. The $800,000 federally financed program extends loans to about 80 homeowners annually.
Renters as well as homeowners may benefit from weatherization assistance programs designed to increase energy efficiency. In Montgomery, all of the windows were replaced last year at Arcola Towers, a subsidized high-rise building near Wheaton with 141 units for elderly tenants.
Local agencies take steps to hold down repair costs. "We offer them a list of contractors who have done work in our program," Sher said. "We make certain they get an adequate number of bids, and we estimate the cost of the job. If the bids come in higher than that, we try to ascertain whether the bids were competitive.
"We hold their hand through the whole process," Sher added.