Ramps and grab bars

Neighborhoods: By helping fragile senior citizens cope with everyday life, city can prevent vacant houses.

February 04, 2002

AS MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley starts to deal with Baltimore's abysmal vacant housing problem, he should consider the predicament of the city's growing senior population.

The reason: Many houses end up vacant when their aging occupants no longer can cope with steep stairs, narrow doors, cramped corridors and other structural impediments.

Mobility problems are not limited to the city.

For two years, the Homes for Life Coalition of Howard County has urged more builders to offer no-step entrances, bathrooms on the first floor and wider doorways. Those kinds of sensible amenities are common in commercial "universal design" communities that have sprung up in many resort areas for the over-55 set.

In Baltimore, the South East Senior Housing Initiative has been modifying houses for more than a decade.

The organization has helped seniors equip their homes with entrance ramps, grab bars in bathrooms and other fall-prevention devices. Vision or hearing impaired seniors have been helped with solutions that have enabled them to keep on living in their houses.

"I really don't think many people know about these things that are possible," said Jo Fisher, who used to work with the Baltimore program and now coordinates the Howard County advocacy group.

Over the years, the South East Senior Housing Initiative (410-327-6193) has enjoyed the support of a bevy of charitable foundations. As a result, it has branched out beyond repair services. It also lends out wheelchairs and walkers. Volunteers even provide help with yard work, grocery shopping and transportation.

Senior citizens are the glue that keeps faltering neighborhoods from falling apart. That's why helping them cope with aging is a good investment. If the city, pressed by its budget woes, cannot do enough, it should harness nonprofits to extend the Southeast Baltimore concept to other areas.

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