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‘It was another lifesaver:’ Baltimore County launches home repair program to help low-income seniors age in place

Beverly Kurtik has lived in her Dundalk home for half her life.

The 80-year-old was raised there with her six siblings on a dirt road in a quiet neighborhood, with only a big blue bus for public transportation. She walked “over the river and through the woods” to get to the now-closed Gray Manor Elementary School.

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She has as many fond memories as painful ones: She recalls her brothers swinging across the creek behind her parents’ house to antagonize a bull on the farm behind them, camping in the backyard and impressing neighbors with the manicured front lawn she tended to as a teenager.

Her voice trembles when she speaks of caring for her ailing mother, for whom Kurtik moved back into her childhood home in the early 1980s. She thinks wistfully of raising her two children as a single mother in that home, eventually pouring her 401(k) into needed repairs when she retired from Legg Mason at 55, adding air conditioning, a bedroom for her son and a bathroom.

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That was the last time repairs were made to the housee, Kurtik said. For years after, she would shop-vac the water flooding her basement. During heavy rain, water “was coming down the wall.”

“I’m glad I have it,” she said of her home. “I don’t want to move... This is so many memories.”

But without the means to pay for the repairs, the conditions she was living in were like hell, she said.

Kurtik is among the first seniors to participate in Baltimore County’s new BCAUSE, or Baltimore County Age-Friendly Upgrades for Seniors, program.

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The initiative, funded by an $800,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, in addition to some funding from Wesley Home Inc., is offering to make repairs and safety modifications costing up to $4,500 to homes owned by eligible county residents older than 65 years.

According to an 2018 AARP survey, 76% of adults 50 and older said they want to stay in their homes as they age, but only 46% said they expected they’d be able to do so.

A quarter of Baltimore County residents are seniors, a projection by the Baltimore County Department of Aging that is driving the county’s efforts to become an AARP-designated age-friendly community — meaning it “enables people of all ages and abilities to actively participate in community activities and treats people with respect, regardless of age,” according to standards set by AARP and the World Health Organization.

The BCAUSE program is just one piece of that, said Laura Riley, director of the county’s Department of Aging.

To qualify, residents must be at or below 50% of the area median income, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said the program “will help empower more of our residents to age in their communities with choice, independence and dignity.”

The program, administered in a collaboration among the aging department; Dundalk Renaissance Corp.; Civic Works; Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., or CHAI; and Rebuilding Together Baltimore, is modeled after Civic Works’ Housing Upgrades to benefit Seniors, or HUBS, program, said Tasha Gresham-James, housing initiatives manager for Dundalk Renaissance, a nonprofit community development group seeking to revitalize the eastern county town, and part of the county’s steering committee for its Age Friendly Baltimore County initiative.

The county is still exploring ways to be more age-friendly in its efforts to earn the AARP designation, and the pandemic has cast a light on many vulnerabilities, Riley said, and is working on a strategic plan to address issues related to community health, transportation, housing and other needs.

Home repairs will largely fall to the partnering groups, and can range from roof repairs to plumbing, electrical and heating system fixes and safety home modifications like grab bars, stair rails and assistive devices, as recommended by aging department staff and occupational therapists who assess the homes.

Kurtik laughs when she thinks about the occupational therapist who toured her house prior to the repairs, asking Kurtik repeatedly, “What else, what else do you need?”

The groups have a goal of fixing 100 homes by the end of the calendar year; about a dozen are already on the waiting list in areas like Timonium and Essex, and the goal is to continue pursuing funding streams to continue the program after its first year, Riley said.

But “it’s not just about fixing the home,” she said. “It’s about making sure, just making sure they have all their other needs met — a social safety net.”

To that end, Department of Aging caseworkers also will visit or call older adults in the program to connect them with other needed resources and services, like home-delivered meals, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance benefits.

For Kurtik, whose once chronically flooded basement already has been remodeled, the repairs have been life-changing, she said.

“If I didn’t live in this house, I don’t know where I’d be at. I mean, it was another lifesaver,” she said about the repairs.

Older adults interested in participating in the BCAUSE program should call the Baltimore County Maryland Access Point at 410-887-2594, available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A certified Information and referral specialist will then complete an application over the phone to determine eligibility.

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