Column: Who Knows What’s Ahead?

Housing Bureau for Seniors provides resources for better living
Jo Mathis

Jo Mathis

Since my father’s death in February, my siblings and I have been working on Project Keep Mother Busy.

This isn’t difficult, as our upbeat little mama is still interested in what’s next; still in some ways that fun-loving brunette from Staten Island. She’s good company.

The other day, while leaving a bakery, I picked up and handed her a brochure about The Housing Bureau for Seniors’ Senior Living & Housing Awareness Week May 7-16. The week is billed as a one-stop chance to gain information, resources and approaches to help make decisions for better living.

Well, you’d think I had just given her a check for a million dollars. Who knew housing was such a big deal to her? After all, she’s in good health. She lives in a condo, where she doesn’t have to worry about yardwork.

But she wants a place that offers a continuum of care, beginning with independent living and ending with nursing care, or hospice. She wonders how her health will be in a year or so, if she’d become a burden to her kids, and what she’d do if there were a medical emergency and nobody around to help.

And no offense to us, but she’d like to be around a few more people her own age.

This is why on Friday I’ll be taking my mother to the Living & Housing Expo at Washtenaw Community College, and to some open houses at senior housing communities the rest of the week.

Knowledge is power, says Justine Bykowski, housing counseling coordinator for the Housing Bureau for Seniors, which is part of the University of Michigan Health System.

Bykowski uses the term “living arrangement” rather than “housing,” because it impacts so many spheres of life.

“We’re talking about what people can afford; what people’s values and preferences are; what people’s needs might be in terms of maximizing their independence,” she said. “Your living arrangement can either undermine or support other very important facets of your life.”

Anita Lim, 75, will be at the expo. She lives with her husband, Frederick, in University Commons, a 92-unit condominium community for active adults 55 and older in Ann Arbor.

So far, so good, said Lim. But who knows what’s ahead?

“Although we do not have any immediate need (for assisted housing) right now, I am the kind of person who wants to be prepared and know what our options are,” she said. “Over the (seven) years we’ve been here, quite a few of our friends and residents have had a change in health, and had to move out.”

Right now, she has no idea what those options are, and looks forward to the expo to find out.

For those who don’t want to leave their home, of course, there are many in-home care agencies that offer companionship, personal care, and respite care for an hourly fee.

Lim has picked up several brochures for in-home care, and they all sound the same.

“How does one pick and choose?” she asked.

Twenty-one home health care providers and health services are scheduled to have exhibits at the expo.

Bykowski recently talked to a man who pays $700 a month in rent, and has an income of just more than $1,000. He didn’t realize he was eligible for help. Subsidized housing – 30% of his gross annual income adjusted by health care costs – would allow him to afford the health care options he has denied himself until now.

Some people have a certain image of subsidized housing.

“But it’s not necessarily for the very poor,” said Bykowski. “It can be someone who had a professional job, and their retirement income is modest, so that’s an option for them.”

Money is a huge issue, of course. When people are pursuing long-term care – whether in their own home, assisted living, or a nursing home – they must look at what they can afford over time so they don’t outlive their resources, Bykowski said, adding: “And the sooner you look at that, the better off you are in terms of maximizing your options and understanding the choices you have.”

Washtenaw County residents are fortunate to be able to tap into the Housing Bureau for Seniors, which specializes in helping people look at their housing and care options. It offers programs in foreclosure and eviction prevention, and home-sharing. Staff help seniors look at the big picture, so the client has a plan to move forward that will stabilize them and get them to the next step before changing health and economic conditions may require the situation be revisited.

“We talk about money as being a crucial consideration, but we want people to also have the benefit of a good quality of life, and that includes thinking of the social and emotional things that come into play in making decisions,” said Bykowski.

Senior Living & Housing Awareness Week is for people who want to move; those who’d rather “age in place” but who could benefit from learning about services to help them do that; the newly retired; and the adult children of older parents who are concerned about housing.

The week kicks off with the Living & Housing Expo on Friday, May 7 from 8:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. at the Morris Lawrence Building, Washtenaw Community College, 4800 E. Huron River Dr., Ann Arbor. A shuttle service will take guests from the parking lot to the front entrance of MLB.

The day includes health screenings, workshops, benefits eligibility assessments, exhibits, and more. Participants can still sign up for a variety of workshops to be held at the expo and at various sites the rest of the week by calling 734-998-9336.

Coda: A Few More Things to Consider

An Ann Arbor resident who lives in senior housing shared with me the following questions he would ask of a potential living arrangment:

  1. Is the management friendly and receptive to the resident(s)?
  2. What services does the complex offer, such as a physical therapy center or other types of mostly social activities?
  3. Are there handicap-friendly, wheelchair accessible units? If so, can the units be modified?
  4. Are pets allowed and for what price?
  5. What is the security like, such as unlawful access through the front door? Have there been problems?
  6. Has the residence had any problems with pests and if so, is it ongoing and being addressed?
  7. What sort of subsidies – such as Section 8 and HUD – are allowed, and what is the waiting time for them?
  8. Does Meals on Wheels have access?
  9. How near is it to local hospitals and the individual’s clinic?
  10. In case of emergency, does an ambulance have access after hours? (Sometimes access is limited until 5 p.m., he says, because no one is in the office to buzz them in.)
  11. Does AATA access the housing through their Senior Good as Gold program, which gives seniors a ride in a taxi at a greatly reduced rate, and provides wheelchair-lift vans?
  12. What is a particular complex’s policy about allowing additional front door keys (often electronic)? What forms are needed to be filled out, and how much does it the cost?
  13. How long is the waiting time after applying?
  14. What is the policy about a live-in aide or family companion?
  15. What about cable service? Is it included or extra?

About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.


  1. May 4, 2010 at 10:35 am | permalink

    Additional things to consider:
    - Is there internet access? If so, at what cost and is there on-site assistance?
    - Is there parking for residents who have their own car? If so, at what cost?
    - Is there an active residents council? Are meeting minutes available to prospective clients?
    - Under what conditions can staff enter residents apartments?
    - Are there plans to install health monitoring devices and services in apartments? If so, at what cost and can residents opt out of health monitoring devices and services?

    I have some experience with that last one. As health technologies grow there are more and more efforts to market this to seniors and resident communities. My parents community administrator elected to contract w/ GE Quietcare and install 5 devices into each residents apartment (not in A2) without consulting residents in advance. That decision was made 2 years ago, cost residents real money, disrupted the entire community and eventually resulted in the administrators resignation.

    So back to your first point, be sure to ask other residents for proof of management-friendly relationships and, if you can, do so without management present. Sometimes residents can be reluctant to speak their minds if they fear there may be reprisals. Not to scare you but elder abuse can be very subtle and parents are sometimes reluctant to tell their children when something is bothering them.

    Regardless of how much data you collect, I wish the best of luck to your mother in finding a friendly, responsible, and active community she cares about.

  2. By Barbara Annis
    May 4, 2010 at 7:46 pm | permalink

    Your mother is indeed lucky to have caring children to help her with these tough decisions. She is also wise to explore her options before she has to act.

    That said, there are more and more options to assist older adults to stay in their own homes. This is a choice that should continue to be considered.

    Also whether it is child care or adult care we cannot pay strangers to love our dear ones.