By Jack Minch
LEOMINSTER -- Theresa McDonald sat in a wingback chair in her 10th-floor apartment smiling and watching television last week when visitors dropped in on the 86-year-old who lives alone in Sunset Towers on Main Street.
"Everything is fine," McDonald said.
The Leominster Housing Authority is slowly expanding a special program put in place by Director Gene Capoccia to keep senior citizens in public housing when they might otherwise move to an assisted-living facility or nursing home.
It's similar to the state's Supportive Senior Housing Initiative but has more oomph to it, Capoccia said.
McDonald is one of six residents taking advantage of Leominster's two-year-old program.
Six of Sunset Tower's 10th-floor apartments are homes to residents receiving day-to-day help from Summit ElderCare, which is part of the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly through Fallon Health's Summit ElderCare, also called PACE.
PACE works in collaboration with the housing authority.
"For us, it's pretty exciting to offer residents an opportunity to stay in their homes," Capoccia said. "We are able to give them choice to going to a nursing home."
It complements Summit ElderCare's mission to provide all-inclusive care and help seniors stay in their homes with independence and autonomy, said Summit ElderCare Vice President and Executive Director Kristine Bostek.
Participation is based on need determined by clinical criteria, she said.
The program has been so successful that Capoccia is committed to expanding to six more apartments on the 10th floor as they open up.
A 13th-floor apartment has been converted to a support center, where PACE's staff members meet with residents for counseling or play games. The apartment's bedroom has been converted to an administrative office.
"We have somebody here 24 hours, seven days a week," Capoccia said.
Sonialis Torres was the aide on duty Wednesday.
If there's an emergency in one of the apartments, the support staff can assess the situation and offer help or call emergency services if necessary, which avoids needless calls to 911.
The Worcester-based Fallon Health has seven Summit ElderCare sites, including one at 55 Cinema Boulevard.
It provides around-the-clock services at Sunset Towers, including domestic tasks such as bathing or grocery shopping but also a myriad of programs for seniors from throughout the region.
PACE lets residents like McDonald retain their independence.
If not for the program, residents would likely have to go to an assisted-living facility that can cost $200 daily or a nursing home that's up to $6,000 a month, Capoccia said.
"Our goal is to help keep people out of nursing homes, so we're wrapping social and clinical services around the people," Bostek said.
Rent for residents in the public housing, including those on Sunset Towers' 10th floor, is based on a percentage of their income, averaging about $370 per month.
The housing authority's Supportive Senior Housing Initiative is available to all eligible city residents, whether they live in senior housing or not. All seniors have to do is engage Summit ElderCare and apply for housing, Capoccia said.
Similar state program
The state Department of Housing and Community Development and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs jointly run their own Supportive Senior Housing Initiative.
At no charge, it offers 24-hour on-site staff for urgent responses, up to two meals a day, reminders to take medications, and structured social activities, said Matthew Sheaff, spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
Other services are offered at a cost based on income, such as personal-care assistance, house cleaning, transportation, laundry and grocery shopping.
The program is available to nearly 4,000 households living in state-aided elderly housing in 27 communities throughout Massachusetts, Sheaff said.
It's pretty much the same thing Leominster uses, he said.
"Basically, it's just making things easier for these folks," Sheaff said.
The current version of the state's initiative was put in place in 1999, said Martina Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs.
There are 31 supportive senior housing sites serving about 4,700 people around the state. Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed budget includes funding for 10 more sites.
They use 27 regional aging service access points, also called ASAPs, which are agencies providing broad ranges of services to seniors, Jackson said.
"There is a resident manager who does coordinate all the services that people get," she said.
Those services include housekeeping, help dressing in the morning and preparing meals, said Melvina Hutchins, the site director for Summit ElderCare on Cinema Boulevard.
"The kinds of things people often get in assisted living," Jackson said.
The need for the initiative is growing quickly as Baby Boomers age, she said. About 20 percent of the state's population is retirement age and the number is expected to reach over 26 percent by 2030.
"Statistically, if you live to 65, you will live another 20 years," Jackson said. "So you can see why it's so important to have this kind of housing program for low-income people."
Capoccia said Leominster's program isn't simply a customized version of the state's. The Leominster model is similar to the state's but goes far beyond what it offers and could serve as a model, he said.
The Leominster Housing Authority also runs the Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Sterling housing authorities.
The Fitchburg Housing Authority uses the state's supportive senior housing initiative, using Montachusett Home Care as an access point.
Montachusett Home Care only has one staffer supporting the entire apartment building of 130 units at 50 Day St. in Fitchburg, he said.
Compare that to the Leominster program, which is staffed around the clock for just six apartments, Capoccia said.
"We're really focused," he said. "We're focusing on people in a much more intensive way."
Even though staffers help residents with shopping, dressing and tracking schedules for taking medicines, most of the work is done at Summit ElderCare's Cinema Boulevard site.
That's where an 11-member interdisciplinary team of clinicians meet daily to assess the needs of all its clients, said Bostek.
McDonald likes to go to the community room at Cinema Boulevard a couple times a week.
"Just to talk to the girls," she said.
To learn more about Summit ElderCare, telephone 800-698-7566.
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