June 18, 2005

Housing for the Poor Elderly

I commented on Wednesday on my IronKnee blog about how hot it was, but I'm pleased to report things are back to normal on the Fahrenheit Scale. Today was a beautiful day, and it was actually possible to go outside without having to gasp for breath. The weather appears to be back to normal, and that's good.

In connection with the weather, this morning I was thinking about old people and electricity. Since I wrote about how many of the old people on my Meals on Wheels routes have air conditioners but don't use them because of the cost of electricity, several people have written to me about special programs that supplement the energy bills of the poor and aged. I plan to look into that on Monday.

One thing I've noticed is that a lot of the old people don't have lights on in their houses when I visit. Several times I've visited an elder to find her trying to read the newspaper in the dark. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I've had to turn a light on just to find the table where she wants me to put the food. I tease her about reading in the dark, and she says she has cat eyes. We laugh, but I can't imagine how she can see to read the paper. I know I couldn't.

They don't turn the lights on because they're conserving electricity. I have no idea what our electric bill is each month, and I don't care. I know it's levelized, so conservation doesn't really have an impact until a year later. I'm not sure that's good for the environment, but it's very good for our budget. But it really doesn't encourage us to conserve electricity. Evidently my elders don't have that advantage, and they conserve their resources by living is dark, hot houses.

Another thing I've noticed is how dilapidated some of their houses are. I've never done an inspection of anybody's house, but the floors in some of those places are so bad that I worry about falling through. And some of the ways into their houses are so bad that I'm sure they can't get in and out to go anywhere. At one house I have to go up 12 very steep steps just to get to the porch, and I only have to climb 14 steps to get to the second floor of my home. (I'm an obsessive step-counter; deal with it.) The 12 steps at that house aren't the same distance apart, either. I pretty much know that the lady who lives alone there (85? 90? Something like that.) can't possibly get up and down those steps to her front door. Ergo, she can't go anywhere. She can't even go visit the neighbors or catch a breath of fresh air outside. At another place I have to go down 10 steep steps to get to the porch, and those steps are very uneven, too. That one is even more precarious than the 12 steps up to the house, and the man who lives there alone needs for me to get him a fork and a napkin because he can't get out of his recliner to get them for himself.

I think we need the equivalent of Habitat for Humanity to repair and restore the homes of the elderly poor. Habitat's Sweat Equity model is great for younger people, but a 90-year-old lady or an 85-year-old man has already put in their "sweat equity." Maybe something like this already exists, but, if it does, I don't know about it. I wish commenters would clue me in, if they know.

I see this as a social justice issue, but, more than that, I see it as a human compassion issue. Some of our elders are suffering privation in ways that middle class people who have no contact with the poor could never know about or imagine. I see it every day now, but I had no clue about this sort of thing a year and a half ago.