WAYNE COUNTY--Looking to further improve senior living and help the elderly maintain their independent lives, Wayne County seeks to join a program to build senior cottages near their families.
The Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity (ECHO) program, allows county aging offices to build small, temporary cottages to house senior citizens. These cottages are fully stocked with a kitchen and bathroom, and are designed to be removed and reused once the occupant has no further need of them.
The cottage is set up on a relative's property, allowing the senior resident to be close enough to help should they need it, but still retain their independence.
In order to participate in this program, Wayne County applied for a $93,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement (PHARE) fund in order to build one cottage. The grant has a 15 percent in-kind match from the county. Ursich explained the County's match will come in the form of staff hours worked to facilitate the program. If all goes well, Urisch hopes to expand the program over time to include a few more ECHO units.
"So now that they're doing phase three...I thought we should try to have it here in Wayne County as well," said Mary Ursich, Wayne County's Director of Aging.
Ursich noted ten PA counties jumped aboard the ECHO program in its first two phases, including Lackawanna County. With Wayne's neighbor to the west already part of the program, Urisch sought the aid of NeighborWorks of Northeastern Pennsylvania--the organization which guided Lackawanna through the process--to help bring these elder cottages here.
Ursich noted the aging department likely won't hear news about their grant application status until spring at the earliest.
Wayne County's Area Agency on Aging and NeighborWorks NEPA have worked together in the past, most recently on a $1 million grant split between Lackawanna and Wayne Counties. These funds area available for homeowners in the two counties to apply for up to $5,000 in order to renovate their homes safer for an elderly resident.
A boon of the elder cottage, Ursich noted, is that it is designed specifically with seniors in mind. This means everything is accessible from the get-go, something which may or may not be the case in one's home. Those who invite their elderly relatives to live with them may need to remodel their houses to accommodate their guest's needs. These cottages allow those accommodations without needing to overhaul one's home.
"We're seeing that social isolation is such a big issue with the older adults, especially now during the pandemic, that having a support really close by is going to benefit them," said Ursich.
In addition to day-to-day interaction and support, having family literally next door means that seniors can continue to get assistance even when the weather is bad, Ursich explained. There is always someone there to help out with their daily tasks.
When asked why so many seniors prefer their independence, Ursich reported that many of the seniors she interacts with as part of her job have relayed that staying in their home as long as possible is a priority. "I don't think anyone I've ever met while I've been doing this job has said, 'Oh, I'm...ready to leave my home'."
"Sometimes your home has been passed down through generations," Ursich continued, "so your home is just a very important thing to so many of our older adults...They have so many memories there and they've invested so much time and resources over the years into their home that their home is their biggest asset. Not even financially,...it's their pride and joy. They want to stay at their home."
"I think for their mental well being and health, they just prefer to stay at home," she added, "I think they're just more comfortable."
In addition to the mental wellbeing and comfort of the elderly, Ursich noted caring for an elderly relative at home can also lessen the financial burden on the individual's estate or their descendants' income. Said Ursich, "Any type of facility care is going to be a lot more costly than staying at home."
The finer details
Should Wayne County be approved for the grant and welcomed into the program, some of the finer details regarding its operation can be found below.
According to NeighborWorks NEPA, ECHO housing is more cost effective and timely than home modifications, and can be more affordable than permanent lodging in a nursing home.
Applicable residents are adults 60 years of age or older whose income is below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). The senior resident doesn't need to be from the county where the ECHO program is active, but the host family does.
Rent can be collected from the elderly resident living in the ECHO home, but it is capped at no more than 30 percent of their income.
The ECHO house is owned and managed by a housing partner agency, in this case, NeighborWorks NEPA, and host families are screened by the local Area Agency on Aging.
"The landowner/host family will be responsible for maintaining the property, allowing the utilities for the cottage to be hooked up to the main house and permitting the Housing Partner Agency to inspect the cottage on a biannual basis," states NeighborWorks NEPA's frequently asked questions.
"These responsibilities will be secured through a Letter of Agreement between the Housing Partner Agency and the landowner/host family. A good faith deposit may be required once it is determined that ECHO is a viable option for all interested parties and steps are being taken toward securing an ECHO cottage. In addition, the host family may be requested to pay for unusual expenses related to setting the ECHO cottage."
Additionally, the FAQ states, "Since the ECHO is considered a temporary structure, no additional taxes will be required." NeighborWorks NEPA as the housing partner agency will delve into the minutiae of local zoning ordinances to let potential landowners know how feasible it is for them to set up an ECHO home.
More information regarding the ECHO program is available from NeighborWorks NEPA website (https://www.nwnepa.org/programs/elder-cottage-housing-opportunity.html).
For a full rundown of programs available through the Area Agency on Aging, visit Wayne County's website (WayneCountyPA.gov).
Information there includes assistance with Medicare and other facets of elderly life, links to the county senior centers and details about programs such as APPRISE--which aids seniors in navigating health insurance--and SHARE--a shared housing program which can benefit both seniors and those of low income by trading services and assistance in exchange for lodging.
"I think we have some nice things going on here for the seniors in Wayne County," said Ursich. "And we're...always open to more feedback and suggestions of what we can do...The senior population is really growing and strong in Wayne County, so we have to just keep thinking of different things."
This article originally appeared on Tri-County Independent: County seeks senior housing opportunity in ECHO program