Disability Advocates Kent County helps low-income seniors age in place

For nearly four decades, Disability Advocates Kent County has been helping people with disabilities identify barriers in their homes and craft solutions so they can remain there. 

Disability Advocates is entering year two of a three-year $975,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that enables the organization to make safety and functional home modifications and limited repairs to allow low-to-moderate-income senior homeowners to remain in their homes. The three-year grant will help 150 seniors in Allegan, Ionia, Mecosta, Montcalm, and Osceola counties.  

“For this grant, we were able to extend what we do a lot in Kent County to these five other surrounding counties,” says David Bulkowski, Executive Director of Disability Advocates of Kent County.

In 2022, Disability Advocates provided home modifications for 43 seniors throughout the five counties.

Part of national program

Disability Advocates was the only organization in Michigan and one of 32 nonprofit organizations, state and local governments, and public housing authorities nationwide to receive a grant from HUD’s $30 million Older Adults Home Modification Program. The national goal is to deliver home modification services to more than 5,000 beneficiaries in primarily rural areas.

Examples of the home modifications include installation of grab bars, railings, and lever-handled doorknobs and faucets, as well as the installation of adaptive equipment, such as non-slip strips for the tub and shower or stairs. These enhancements will enable older adults to remain in their homes, or age in place, rather than move to nursing homes or other assisted care facilities.

The photos show improvements to tubs to make them more accessible. (DAKC)

The HUD grant was awarded in August 2021.

To qualify, recipients must be 62 or older, have proof of ownership for the dwelling they live in, and have income that does not exceed 80% of the median income for their area.

The 2022 annual median household income figures in the target counties are as follows: 

In Allegan County, DAKC is partnering with Disability Network Lakeshore, which serves Ottawa and Allegan counties.
“Our services have helped to increase the quality of the lives of people with disabilities and seniors by allowing them to stay in their own homes,” Bulkowski says. 

Bruce Moulenbelt, 81, of Allegan, heard about the program from a neighbor. The small changes to his mobile home added up to a big difference.

The changes included a new keyless door handle and cutting the side of his bathtub so he could step out of it without causing pain to his stiff knees and legs. A new bathroom faucet and a taller toilet means his 6-foot-2 frame doesn’t have to bend as low to use them. 
A modification such as grab bar can make a bathroom safer for someone with mobility issues. (DAKC)
The former teacher and driving instructor says the changes have made it easier to move around his house. 

“It’s really made it easier for me to remain independent, and these are things I couldn’t afford on my own,” Moulenbelt says. “The small changes like having a new handle instead of a doorknob on my front door makes a large difference with my ability to open and close the door because of my arthritis.”

Support for aging in place

Providing home assessments and independent living solutions are a cornerstone of the 42-year-old organization and a major portion of the services it offers at its new headquarters at the Special Olympics Inclusion Center in Byron Township.

Photos show the before and after of a new flooring to improve mobility. (DAKC)
 The Wolters Home Accessibility Center is the area’s first space where people with disabilities and seniors can explore ways to renovate their homes so they can be more independent. It is the region’s only “test space” showroom where persons with disabilities, their families, health care and design professionals, and building contractors can explore options for a safer home, including models and adaptive equipment.
“The Home Accessibility Center has provided a place for designers, architects, builders, persons with disabilities and seniors to experience what a universally accessible space can look like and modifications that can be made to keep people safe and independent for as long as possible,” says Peggy Helsel, development director for Disability Advocates.

Disability Advocates of Kent County was founded in 1981 by persons with disabilities who sought to help themselves and others with disabilities gain control over their own lives. DAKC has become recognized locally and across the state for its home accessibility services, transit advocacy, community education, technical assistance on accessibility, and Universal Design through its Absolutely Accessible Kent program. 

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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