Two years ago, Portsmouth resident Linda Darner started noticing that her husband, Leroy, had trouble remembering things.
Then he started losing his balance and falling. Finally, he began imagining things - events that never happened.
Leroy, Linda said, has dementia, compounded by brain injuries that he suffered as a college athlete more than 50 years ago.
Now, although Leroy, 74, has good days as well as not-so-good days, he needs constant supervision - and it has started to take a toll on his wife.
"It's very hard seeing the person you love turn into someone you don't know recognize," said Linda Darner, 72.
Linda is adamant about not institutionalizing Leroy while she is still able to care for him.
"I want to keep him at home as long as I can," she said.
Last spring, on a social worker's recommendation, the Darners reached out to Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, a private nonprofit that provides support services to seniors so that they can remain in their own homes as an alternative to nursing home care.
Linda needed someone to help Leroy dress and keep him company while he eats, watches TV and takes walks - someone to just spend time with Leroy to make sure he's safe while Linda tends to their house and runs errands.
SSSEVA helped the Darners out by sending them a vetted volunteer who spends four hours a day, five days a week, with Leroy.
Joe Johnson, 75, said his wife, Barbara, encouraged him to become a volunteer after she started volunteering with SSSEVA.
Now the Darners say Johnson is like part of the family.
"Joe coming here is a blessing and a half," Linda said. "He and Leroy have even gone fishing together."
Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia is one of 25 area agencies on aging in the state, and has the largest service area, said spokeswoman Mary Howell.
As the American population ages but lives longer, more and more seniors want to remain in their own homes during their golden years.
"Aging in place" is the catch-phrase referring to the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently and comfortably as one grows older. It offers seniors an option to assisted-living facilities and nursing homes and is less expensive than supervised institutions.
Aging in place requires health care, housing and transportation options that promote older adults' wellness, mobility and quality of life.
Portsmouth resident Margaret Knight lost her husband, Alvin, four years ago - the same year she had multiple surgeries on her left hip.
Widowed and in a wheelchair, Knight found that she needed help preparing meals for herself.
She learned that SSEVA has a meal-delivery program and now, although Knight no longer uses a wheelchair and gets around with a cane, she continues to use the meal service because she has trouble standing long enough to prepare food in her kitchen.
The meals don't come with a price-tag, but all participants are encouraged to make donations - whatever they can - to help fund the program.
"Every senior is an individual, and every senior's abilities are different," said John Skirven, CEO of SSSEVA. "Our job is to help them live with choice and dignity. We help them to obtain the goods, services, benefits and supports that they need."
Knight, 70, said that she also signed up for the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office Senior Watch Program.
"They call me every morning to make sure I'm OK, and I really appreciate that," Knight said, because she wants to remain in her home.
"It's important for me to stay in my own house," she said. "Here, I feel peace of mind, I feel contentment... I feel the presence of my husband."
She's not alone. According to a 2011 AARP report, 90 percent of people 65 and older want to continue living at home as they age.
Hampton Roads has a number of organizations like the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office and SSSEVA to help senior citizens, but in northern Virginia and in other parts of the country, another the aging-in-place concept has taken hold with senior "village" groups.
Senior villages are groups of older citizens who live within defined geographic boundaries and who organize to ensure that they each have what they need to remain in their own houses.
Typically, volunteers are recruited who can help the villagers with errands, cooking, cleaning, transportation, home repairs and other needs.
Some villages have a formal structure, where members pay a fee (monthly or annually) to become part of the village and help fund the administration of the group. Other villages are staffed entirely by volunteers and require no fees. Village structure is entirely up to the members and their governing board.
Villages may also provide social activities, including outings or special interest clubs, for their members.
Mount Vernon At Home is a village group that services a 14-square mile area in eastern Fairfax County, Virginia. Participants pay membership fees of $700 for singles and $950 for couples annually and receive myriad of services, including transportation, simple household chores and repairs, computer and other technical device support and companionship visits.
The group also provides members with lists of vetted contractors, many of them with special fee arrangements, so if a senior needs a roof repaired, for example, he knows he won't be ripped-off.
Mount Vernon At Home started in 2009 with 90 members and now has more than 180.
It was a group of seniors that initiated the concept and helped do the legwork to start the organization, said its executive director, Barbara Sullivan.
"The concept works really well in urban settings, but there are models for many types of communities," Sullivan said. "Civic leagues, senior centers, condo and homeowners associations are great places for this concept to germinate. It just takes a couple of people to start thinking about it and recruiting their friends to help."
Of course, before you can age in place, you must have a place in which to age safely. A critical part of aging in place is having or creating a home environment that is conducive to independent living.
Jerry Pattenaude, president of Chesapeake-based Leo F. Johns Contractor Inc., is an aging-in-place specialist, certified through the National Association of Home Builders. That means that while his company does full-service home remodeling, he also has specialized knowledge and experience in home modifications that are useful for seniors.
"There are different aging-in-place issues, like mobility, eyesight, hearing or arthritis," Pattenaude said.
Home modifications that can help seniors are access ramps, wider doorways, lever handles on doors and cabinets instead of knobs, more lighting, replacing tubs with walk-in showers, adding higher elevation commodes and grab-bars in the bathroom, installing non-skid flooring, and lowering counters in the kitchen.
Chris Ettel, president of VB Homes in Virginia Beach, said that home automation is also an excellent home modification for seniors, and that the technology is becoming more sophisticated and affordable all the time.
"A central station with a keypad can provide for cameras, security lighting, a security system, lights for different rooms, televisions and sound systems," Ettel said. "You can even automate the locking and unlocking of your exterior doors from a central keypad or remotely."
Margaret Knight has implemented many of these home modifications, including subscribing to a medical-alert service that can bring help to her through the touch of a button on a pendant that she wears around her neck.
Both Pattenaude and Ettel said it is never too early to start planning your home modifications.
"It's hard to tell people that it's not a matter of if, but when," Pattenaude said. "They prefer to stick their head in the sand when it comes to the realities of aging, but good planning can keep an older person in their home for a long time."
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