Home sweet home

Supportive housing options offer seniors independence within a safe, secure environment

Home sweet home
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Supportive housing

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2010

It was the summer of 2007, and Louisa Loeb was at a bit of a crossroads.

Just a few months earlier, the Winnipeg woman, then 81, had suffered a stroke that left her unable to talk.

It was a difficult time for Louisa. A former professor in the Faculty of Education at Brandon University, she was the very definition of an active woman. She had spent her career giving lectures, writing papers, and working on doctorates. She even found time to compile and edit a couple of books on subjects near and dear to her heart: Ukrainian culture and teaching.

The stroke threatened to change all that. After a lifetime of helping others, Louisa was now the one who needed help.

But true to form, Louisa worked hard in recovery. She spent May and June of that year at the Riverview Hospital's stroke rehabilitation program. Throughout the summer, Louisa made steady progress in her recovery and as fall approached she was ready to move on. But the question was, where would she go?

Despite her recovery, Louisa could not return to living alone in her own condominium. She wasn't able to cook for herself, nor was she capable of doing laundry and other housekeeping chores. At the same time, Louisa clearly was not ready for a personal care home; she could still do a lot on her own, and she wasn't about to give up her independence and privacy.

Fortunately, Louisa was able to find a housing solution, one that fell somewhere in between the overwhelming challenges of living alone and the controlled setting of a personal care home. Through the Winnipeg Health Region's Supportive Housing Program, Louisa was able to find a suite at Rosewood Supportive Housing by Revera, one of several supportive housing residences in Winnipeg.

Funded through a partnership between the Region and landlord sponsors, supportive housing is a relatively new option for people who can no longer manage in their own home, but are not ready to move into a personal care home.

Kathy Taylor, Project Director for Community Housing in the Region, says supportive housing is a great option for people like Louisa. "It provides personal supports and services such as meals, laundry and housekeeping in a safe and secure environment," she says. "In doing so, supportive housing promotes independence, encourages socialization and allows seniors to stay in the community longer."

Residents have a suite with their own belongings: furniture, art, books, photographs, treasured mementos, and other personal items. Balanced meals are served in a communal dining area, ensuring that seniors are well-nourished and also have the opportunity to socialize with their neighbours.

Louisa's son, Gerald Loeb, says supportive housing was the perfect fit for his mother. "The beauty of supportive housing is that it offers the security of 24/7 supervision, complete meals, housekeeping, but she can still have her independence," he says.

In Louisa's case, living at the Rosewood is like living at a resort. "I enjoy life here," she says. "I feel glad to be here; I've got lots of friends, and I value being with other people. I wouldn't have this experience if it weren't for the Rosewood."

Louisa likes the socialization and takes part in some of the many recreational opportunities "I enjoy going on outings or getting involved in activities," she notes.

One of the interesting things about supportive housing is that it draws residents from all walks of life, which in itself creates a stimulating environment in which to live.

Louisa is one example. As an academic and editor, she has a keen interest in literature and the arts. "My father was Ukrainian and my mother was Russian, so our home was very multicultural," Louisa explains during a recent visit. "They came to Canada in 1924, three months before I was born."

Louisa paid tribute to that heritage by editing Down Singing Centuries, the Folk Literature of the Ukraine, a compilation of stories, poems and songs, translated by Florence Randal Livesay, that Ukrainian immigrants brought with them to their new home in Canada. She also edited and compiled Manitoba Permit Teachers of World War II, a book that documents the experiences of young girls who were recruited out of high school to teach in one-room school houses all over the province during the Second World War.

Indeed, in 2005, at the age of 79, Louisa helped initiate a World War Two Permit Teachers' Reunion. "They had never had any recognition for their important contribution," she says. "Twenty-nine retired teachers came to the first one; the second year it doubled."

Louisa has also spent a lifetime working for the education and well-being of children, both at home and abroad. Awards from the Manitoba Council for Exceptional Children, The Social Planning Council, Aboriginal Literacy Foundation, and Manitoba's Black community, among others, show a remarkable dedication to her volunteer work."I loved to teach and help others," she says. "It's very important to do work that has value."

In keeping with her lifelong commitment to the community, Louisa has found new ways to become engaged at Rosewood Village. "I taught myself to knit," she explains, adding that she makes scarves which she donates to the Christmas Cheer Board's knitting program. "It's important to give back," she says emphatically.

When it comes to needing alternative living arrangements, Louisa's story is not uncommon. As the population ages, an increasing number of seniors must come to terms with the fact that they may no longer be able to live alone.

The Region recognized the need for more housing with support options over 10 years ago when the supportive housing concept was first developed. In the last five years, the number of supportive housing spaces in Winnipeg has doubled to a total of 516. The number of applications for supportive housing has also increased, hitting 352 in 2009, compared with 230 in 2006.

Demand is expected to accelerate in the years to come. The average age of a supportive housing resident is about 85. Currently, there are about 30,000 people between the ages of 75 and 84 years of age living within Winnipeg and its surrounding communities, and that number could reach close to 50,000 within 20 years.

Of course, making decisions around living arrangements can be difficult, not only for the individual involved, but for the entire family.

Roxanne Reich, Resident Services Manager at Rosewood Village, says all families have different situations to contend with, but they have one thing in common. "People fear giving up independence," she says. "They think of the sterile nursing home of the past."

But it doesn't take long before they realize that supportive housing is nothing like a personal care home, she says. "Some people take two to three months to settle in and some take to it like a duck to water."

Louisa has fit into her new lifestyle very well, Reich says. "She recovered extremely well from her stroke, and she feels that she's stimulated here. We offer interesting events and activities during the day - exercising, special trips, sometimes we go out for lunch, and we host family events that are lots of fun," she says.

Gerald Loeb agrees that the residents are certainly not starved for activity. "There's always something on the go," he says. "It bridges the gap between living in the community independently and living in a personal care home."

When she wants to be alone or have privacy with her visitors, Louisa's suite is very much a reflection of her personality. She is surrounded by her own comfortable furniture, plants, and walls featuring her favourite artwork, as well as her numerous degrees, and community service awards. "I'm very comfortable here," she says.

This comfort also extends to family members. "Her diet is much better," says Gerald Loeb. "We know she's eating well. It's a relief to know she's being looked after."

People living in supportive housing arrive there for different reasons and under varying circumstances, officials say.

Mary Gerstmar, a cheery 93-year-old now living in the Lions supportive housing residence on Portage Avenue, was in her own home on Henderson Highway until about three years ago.

But the fact that she was living alone posed serious issues, for both Mary and her family. Along with being severely hearing impaired, Mary was facing a number of other challenges. Her son, Joe Gerstmar, and his wife, Jane, noticed little things at first. "We knew she wasn't feeding herself and she was forgetting things," says Joe. "She had dementia and we didn't realize it."

For families coping with ailing parents on top of their own daily stresses, the responsibility can be overwhelming. "It was really hard on my wife, she was doing everything for her," he notes.

Then there were safety issues. Simple tasks once taken for granted suddenly loomed high on the danger scale. They worried constantly about whether Mary would leave the stove on or turn the heat off in winter, says Joe.

Like many people dealing with the care of elderly parents in the community, Joe was unaware of what options were available for his mother. In fact, it wasn't until Joe's family doctor referred him to Home Care, that they got some advice on what to do. "Home Care suggested supportive housing," says Joe. "We hadn't heard anything about it. We didn't know what we were going to do."

After an eligibility assessment by Winnipeg Health Region staff, Mary was listed for an available opening. "We looked at quite a few places before deciding on Lions," Joe says.

Knowing his mother is happy and well looked after in a safe environment has made an incredible difference to their lives. His mother gets the ongoing help she needs, and he knows that if there's a problem, someone will be there.

"It's been just great, such a relief. And the staff who work there are really special people," he says. "We can't do for her what they do there 24/7."

And with the help and support she now has, Mary is still a going concern. She's got her own routine, just like she's always had. Whether it's her morning stroll, having breakfast with her friend, Pauline, or participating in one of the activities, it's not hard to see that Mary enjoys it here.

Her apartment has all of her familiar belongings, and the family pictures on the wall as she comes in the door let her know she's home. "I just love this place," she says. "I like the company and I like having somebody to talk to. It's easy to make friends here," she says. "I can ask for help when I need it."

Margaret Coquete, Program Manager for Lions, says supportive housing can have a huge impact on both the family and the resident.

"Life can be in total chaos with worry and care-givers' stress," she explains. "There's often a real transformation in the family once they feel confident that they've placed Mom in the right spot."

"The program has so much to offer," she says, adding that the supportive housing program is really a collaborative partnership with the family in which they all work toward a good quality of life for everyone involved.

"I do my best to fit the needs of the applicant," she says. "Our programming is geared to the individual's abilities, interests and functioning levels. But family participation is an absolute must," she notes. "Whether it's taking Mom or Dad to an appointment or continuing on with extra-curricular activities, it's important that families stay involved. It offers a continuum of the way life used to be."

And, of course, there's uncertainty and fear of the unknown. "The ultimate question is whether Mom or Dad is going to be happy with it," says Coquete. "Often the resident settles in and transitions much more quickly than the family."

Worrying about doing the right thing and choosing the right option for a loved one is definitely a common issue, says Linda Sherrin, General Manager at Riverwood Square's Harmony Court supportive housing residence.

"Families feel guilt and anguish - they feel torn about putting Mom or Dad in a care setting," she says. "There's a fear that it's a personal care home."

People often don't understand the concept of supportive housing. "It's not an institution. It's not clinical or medical," she explains. "This is Mom's or Dad's new home. It's not an institution."

"A care plan is customized to meet the needs of the individual," she says. "Some people need help with bathing or dressing, they may need cuing and reminding about pills or meds. No two people are the same."

It's important that life carries on as usual, says Sherrin. "A key part is daily activities and being stimulated."

And like any new situation, it can take a while for residents to settle in to their new environment. Some people settle in immediately and others can take a little longer.

Herbert Butcher, an energetic 83-yearold with a shock of white hair, is always quick with a quip or a joke. A newcomer to Harmony Court, he says he's still getting used to the place. "I'm a newbie," he jokes.

For him, the transition has been an easy one. His interaction with the resident companion and other residents is easy and relaxed. "Everybody is friendly and the staff is nice," he says. "It's a good spot to be if you can't be at home."

His suite is as neat as a pin, much like the man himself. Intricate wood carvings, as good as any seen in a gift shop, sit on top of his dresser. "It's just a hobby," he says modestly. "My wife thought they would make me feel at home."

He's taken settling into a new routine in stride. "After breakfast, I like to read my newspaper and I like watching news or sports with some of the fellas," he says. "It's a nice place to live, and the food is good. I'm very fortunate."

His wife, Bev Butcher, is starting to feel a sense of relief that safety and security are no longer issues. Dealing with her husband's Alzheimer's for the past six years has taken its toll on the 83-year-old woman. "It's so much better now - I was at the end of my rope," she says. "Now I can see light at the end of the tunnel."

Once the family understands that their loved one is in a safe environment and that their needs are being met on a 24- hour basis, there's often a huge sense of relief. Families can get back to being a family without the stress of caring for everyday needs, says Sherrin. "The family relationship blossoms," she says.

Helena Cole is a Winnipeg writer.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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