Elderly residents in a financial pinch find Chris Muller is the man to call for repairs

A helpful handyman

February 16, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

When Sandra Gardner awoke in predawn darkness to find the heat off in the double-wide mobile home she shares with her 84-year-old husband, Warren, in Howard County, she knew they were in trouble.

"It was like an iceberg in here," the 62-year old, partially disabled woman said, recalling that recent frigid morning in the home off U.S. 1.

Unable to afford a commercial repair, she used the oven for heat until morning, and followed her daughter's advice to call Howard County's Office on Aging for help.

The furnace was fixed, free, within an hour of her call, thanks to Howard County's Home Modification Program and Chris Muller, the program's lone repair and installation worker.

"The program isn't a fix-all for everything," Muller said, but the modification program "is there to allow people to stay [in their homes] as long as possible." Fixing things for vulnerable older folks can help, he said, though the program has another service, too.

"It's not only for low-income people," said Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, which includes the Office on Aging.

Muller and Corrine Yenny, a county occupational therapist, also provide free two-hour consultations for people of any income who want advice on how to prepare their homes for safe use by older people. They suggest to homeowners what they may need and how health or safety devices might best be installed.

Joe and Mary Roush of Columbia moved from Tennessee in April, and Mary said she heard about the consultation service at a meeting on Universal Design as she gathered information to prepare for her mother-in-law's plan to move in. Universal Design is the idea of making homes safe for older, perhaps infirm, people by installing grab bars in bathrooms, widening doorways and installing ramps.

"They were both very knowledgeable," Mary Roush said about Muller and Yenny. "They came out and they really did know their stuff."

The Roushs' income is too high to qualify for more than the consultation, but they welcomed the advice.

"It's a great service," Mary Roush said.

The program has an annual budget of $47,550 in federal block grant money, plus $25,000 from the Columbia Association for help offered to residents of the planned town. The county contributes most of the Muller's salary and all of Yenny's, said Mary Becker-Omvig, program coordinator.

"We're very creative. The good thing is that the program has expanded to the point that we have a person [Muller] with a utility truck" who works for the program full time.

With money for only one repair technician, officials were careful to find the right one for the job, she said.

Muller, 45, "has a wonderful ability to develop a rapport with our residents. It puts them at ease," Becker-Omvig said.

Muller said he has 29 clients, many of them older, sometimes fragile people who live in mobile home parks in the eastern part of the county.

Repairs and installation of safety devices are free for homeowners at least 62 years old or disabled with incomes that are less than federal standards. For one person, that means an income lower than $40,450, or up to $46,200 for two people.

No job may exceed $5,000, but the vast majority are simple tasks, like the one Muller did for a 77-year-old Ellicott City woman last week.

Crouched on the edge of the bathtub, Muller drilled a series of holes in the pale, blue-green tile, pushing snap-toggle bolts through the holes and screwing in big metal grab bars. Her hands crippled by arthritis, the independent-minded 30-year resident said she could take baths again if she had the safety bars. She refused to be publicly identified for fear of burglars, she said.

Muller, 45, said he pushed snow as a member of county highway crews for years and did recreation and parks maintenance. But he jumped at the home-modification job when he saw it advertised two years ago.

"It just seemed that it was the perfect fit," the 22-year county employee said. He enjoys being out on his own and gets lots of satisfaction in helping a grateful clientele.

He is comfortable with older people and is efficient, yet genial, they agree. Sandra Gardner endorsed that view.

Gardner is partially disabled, and her husband is on oxygen 24 hours a day. She said the couple lives on Social Security, and they are behind on their utility payments. They had no money for furnace repairs when the heat failed last week.

"I flipped the [thermostat] switch, but nothing happened. I tried the circuit-breaker several times," she said.

Then she followed her daughter's advice and called the Howard County Office on Aging.

Muller was in his utility truck when he heard about the Gardners' plight.

He recalled visiting the couple before and stopped at their house within minutes, identified the defective $5.90 furnace fuse, bought a new one and installed it. Then he arranged for a contractor to come this week to reconnect the heating ducts under the home to restore heat flow to both sides of the unit.

Sandra Gardner praised Muller for his actions and his personality.

"I can't tell you enough. His personality is so great," she said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

Information about Howard County's Home Modification program: 410-313-5980.

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