Stuck in place: How older adults end up trapped inside their own homes

San Francisco Chronicle: Stuck in place: How older adults end up trapped inside their own homes (September 24, 2022)

Seven months ago, Betty Gray could climb the 11 inside steps leading to her Berkeley apartment, though it would take her about 15 minutes. In her 70s and suffering from chronic pain and congenital arthritis, she’d park her wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs and then scoot backward up each step. At the top, she’d pause before grasping the rail “for dear life” as she pulled herself to her feet.

But one day in February, Gray’s legs quivered like Jell-O as she stood at the top of the stairs. She remembers stumbling backward, rolling down all 11 steps and the sound of her head smacking the concrete floor at the bottom. Paramedics arrived, but Gray refused a ride to the hospital — she didn’t want to have to face those stairs once she was discharged. They helped her into her apartment and that’s where she remained.

Like many people, Gray does not want to go to a nursing home. “When you put old people where they don’t want to be,” she said, “they die.” But her low income and need for an accessible living unit severely limited Gray’s choices. Even with a Section 8 housing voucher to help, she struggled to find adequate quarters, leaving her stuck in a place that wasn’t a good fit — physically or mentally.

Though assistance is available to help low-income older adults remain in their own homes, many are unaware of such programs or how to access them, says Denny Chan, directing attorney with the policy and advocacy organization Justice in Aging. The result is that many who choose not to move into institutionalized settings end up effectively as shut-ins like Gray, unable to go outside and dependent on friends and relatives for help.

“Our system of supports and services that allows older adults to age in their community is broken and racialized,” Chan said. “The inadequate access to home- and community-based services and the racialized rental housing burden work together to hurt many older adults of color trying to stay in their homes and communities.” A recent report from Justice in Aging and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition shows older Black and Latinx households are not only more likely to be renters, they’re also more likely to be low-income renters paying more than 30% of their income on housing amid a dearth of affordable and accessible units.

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