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The hum of drills anchoring two 24-inch grab bars into his master bedroom shower stall was a sweet sound to Jerry Aguiare. He didn't mind that the country music softly playing in the front room was drowned out.

Aguiare, a recent amputee still adjusting to life with just one leg, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the Goodwork Handyman crew making the modifications necessary for him to safely pull himself from his motorized wheelchair into the shower.

After retirement 10 years ago from Jackson County Fire District 5, Aguiare developed complications due to diabetes and was forced to walk with a cane. In December, he was told surgery would save his life.

"I lost my leg, but not my life," he said.

With guts and grit befitting a Vietnam-era Air Force vet and former firefighter, Aguiare, 77, is determined to stay in his Central Point home without a caregiver to assist him with personal care.

The new grab bars will help him to do so, he said.

If he is able to get a prosthetic this spring, he may have additional installations to reduce the risk of falling.

“Staying in my home and doing everything for myself — by myself — is important,” says Aguiare.

Preventing falls and improving accessibility save lives and dollars, say Howard and Sharon Johnson, who founded Age-Friendly Innovators in 2013. AFI’s “Grandma’s Porch” fund was created to offset the cost of materials and labor necessary for projects like those completed last month in Aguiare’s home.

Eighty percent of falls occur in the bathroom, they say. The cost of a major injury resulting from a fall can exceed $35,000, versus $330 — the cost of installing a few grab bars and a chair or bench in a shower.

Sharon Johnson notes statistics show that one-third of adults older than 65 fall. Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 20 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.

For Johnson, those stats represent loved ones. Both her mother and mother-in-law had issues with mobility and accessibility, and both fell in the bathroom. After a serious fall, her mother died of complications.

The Grandma’s Porch crew — Jim Pierce, Nick Bingham and Zach Bingham — completed projects for other Central Point-area military veterans and their wives the same morning they visited Aguiare.

Harold Ballard, 94, let his wife, Leona, “supervise” the trio as they installed grab bars and a shower bench in the bathtub, and a grab handle near the back porch step-down.

After a quick inspection, the crew talked about coming back to rebuild the ramp leading up to the front door. A World War II Marine veteran wounded at Iwo Jima, Ballard gets around with the aid of a walker. Pipe rails on either side of the ramp would make him less of a fall risk.

Bill Evans, and his wife, Gwen, were also beneficiaries. In their mid- to late-80s and suffering varying degrees of neuropathy, they are conscious of the need for safety precautions. Bill Evans’ condition, aggravated by the residual effects of severe frostbite endured as a soldier during the Korean War, makes him a high risk for a fall.

“We feel we do very well for our ages,” said Gwen Evans. “But some things have bothered me for a while. We have lived here for 26 years and we want to stay here as long as we can and are able.”

Aguiare, the Ballards and the Evanses represent the growing number of seniors who want to safely “age in place” in their current homes.

A serious injury caused by a fall, however, could take that option away, say the Johnsons.

A debilitating injury could send them to an expensive nursing facility or assisted-living community.

In addition to installing safety features to prevent falls, crews check that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and furnace filters are functioning properly, and dryers are properly vented.

For the past six years, Age-Friendly Innovators and Grandma’s Porch have flown under the radar. To broaden its scope, Age-Friendly Innovators joined forces last fall with Rebuilding Together, a 40-year-old national safe and healthy housing nonprofit. It’s been rebranded as Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley, and the Johnsons hope increased awareness and visibility will help Grandma’s Porch meet the ever-increasing demand for services.

Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley has also teamed up with Ashland Fire & Rescue to assist low-income residents with remedying any mobility or accessibility issues within their home and ensure they have functioning fire alarms and fire safety equipment.

Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley averages five to six referrals from all over the Rogue Valley each week. In 2018, Age-Friendly Innovators received 213 referrals from both Jackson and Josephine counties, nearly double the 103 received in 2017.

Referrals come from hospital occupational and physical therapists, the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, ACCESS, the Housing Authority of Jackson County, Habitat for Humanity, All Care Health and the Aging and Disability Resource Connection, or word of mouth.

Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley’s clients are typically low-income seniors or people with disabilities living in substandard single-family houses, manufactured homes or aging recreational vehicles. Others, like those whose stories are shared here, are middle-income older residents living in moderate single-family homes. They do not qualify for government or nonprofit programs, but at the same time cannot afford expensive retirement communities or a 24/7 caregiver. They own their homes outright and live on fixed incomes. Spending out of pocket for home repairs and upgrades is not feasible.

Ninety-percent of the folks the Johnsons encounter want to stay in their own home.

Before any work is done, two volunteers, generally Sharon and Howard Johnson, or one of them paired with another volunteer will make an in-home visit to assess the risks and needs. Based upon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fall-risk criteria, they will evaluate the residents’ risks during the 60- to 90-minute assessment. If the prospective client scores four or higher, “a flashing yellow light” goes off in Sharon Johnson’s head.

“It’s a caution ... this person may be at risk,” she says, adding that her goal is to listen, observe and “make a difference.”

A recent assessment was fairly typical.

Geneva Gaither, 90, has health issues, uses canes and walkers to move about, but is bound and determined to remain in her northwest Grants Pass home of 57 years. Not only did she need modifications in her bathrooms, there were also concerns about her getting in and out of the house safely for shopping trips and doctor appointments.

Within two days, Howard Johnson and the crew were back with their tools to install grab bars, a vertical grab pole and toilet rails in the bathrooms, rear porch grab handles, and a front step pipe rail.

There were also recommendations to remove clutter and trip hazards, such as throw rugs.

In addition to installing grab bars and ramps, typical work orders may include removing step-over thresholds in shower stalls, replacing twist water faucets with levers, changing doorknobs to door handles, widening hallways or entryways, and even converting a downstairs room to a bedroom.

According to a Community Needs Assessment done by ACCESS in 2017, the need for assistance will sharply increase over the next several years. Nearly 20 percent of the population in Jackson County is 65 or older. There is also a high percentage of military veterans and folks who live with disabilities. The population of Josephine County is fairly similar.

To meet the demand, Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley is recruiting more volunteers to interview prospective clients and complete in-home assessments, and is raising money to hire more work crews and purchase materials and equipment by reaching out to potential corporate sponsors and writing grant applications.

One proposal is for a community block grant that would underwrite wheelchair ramp building in the city of Medford.

“Doing the work is a joy,” says Sharon Johnson. “Ensuring we have enough money to do the work is always a challenge.”

If you would like to help, call Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley at 541-261-2037, or mail inquiries to P.O. Box 3157, Central Point, OR, 97502.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Jerry Aguiare, a recent amputee still adjusting to life with just one leg, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the Goodwork Handyman crew making the modifications necessary for him to safely pull himself from his motorized wheelchair into the shower.
Nick Bingham, with Goodwork Handyman, installs a grab bar at the home of Jerry Aguiare in Central Point. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune