BALTIMORE — Alberta Hough struggles to feed herself a snack, her arms shaking badly from Parkinson's disease. Days earlier, the 84-year-old fell while eating, sliding off her kitchen chair.
The rest of Hough's day isn't much easier to navigate. She wobbles into a bathtub with no grab bar. Her feet catch on damaged floor tiles. Part of the banister she needs to steady herself on the stairs has pulled out of the wall. At the back door, a rickety wooden ramp no longer supports the scooter that helps her get around.
The environment in which you live can be as disabling as a disease, and too often, older Americans wind up in a nursing home not because they're super-sick but because they can't get through their days safely at home.
Now a major research project will bring handymen, occupational therapists and nurses into the homes of 800 low-income seniors in Baltimore to test if some inexpensive fix-ups and strategies for daily living can keep them independent longer, and save millions in taxpayer dollars spent on nursing home care.
"Very small changes can make a big difference," said Sarah Szanton, a Johns Hopkins University associate nursing professor who leads the project. "We're not saying, 'What's your blood pressure?' We're focusing on function: What do they want to do?"
Losing independence is a leading fear as people age. But a recent poll shows that too few comprehend the changes in lifestyle needed to offset the chronic illnesses and gradual slowdown that hit just about everyone in the 70s, 80s and beyond.
Asked about their choice of living situation when they're older, Americans 40 and over say their top priorities are a one-level home with no stairs, that's close to their children and medical care, according to the poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Chances are, that won't be enough.
For Hough, No. 1 is feeding herself without everything tumbling off the fork.
"I'm shaking all the time," she quietly told Hopkins occupational therapist Allyson Evelyn-Gustave.
Hough's other priority is not falling, and stairs are only one of her home's hazards.
To Hopkins' Szanton, bridging the gap between what older adults are able to do and what their homes allow them to do is key to maintaining independence.
The Capable study aims to prove how. During 10 home visits over four months, the Hopkins team is tailoring interventions — including about $1,100 in home repairs or modifications provided for free — to help low-income seniors who are having trouble caring for themselves.
Drills buzzed in Hough's house as carpenters installed a new banister and added grab bars and a raised toilet seat in the bathroom. They replaced patches of flooring to prevent trips and prepared to tackle the ramp.
As for eating, Evelyn-Gustave recommended a little-known tool: utensils and cups that are specially weighted to counter Hough's tremors.
"It'll be easier for you to hold," she promised.
The set of utensils costs only about $20, one of the affordable tips the study is generating. Hough's daughter had thought the only solution was an aide to feed her mother, which the older woman hates.
"I always said I wouldn't let my mom go to a nursing home," said Gloria J. Hawks, 66, who is determined to care for her mother in the house the two share.