By Cecilia Mazanec | December 19, 2017
Despite living in a small, fenced-in home on a quiet corner of a Hawthorne neighborhood, it seems Kathy Thomas isn’t a fan of silence.
The landline phone in the kitchen is on hold, the harsh buzz of a busy line interrupted every few minutes by the automated voice of a man stating a representative would soon respond. In the adjacent living room, Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” plays loudly on the radio.
Kathy, 60, sits patiently at the table, clutching a Michelob Ultra in a koozie. The cigarette in the ashtray is still smoking. She’s on the phone with the Social Security Administration and was told she might have to wait an hour before speaking with someone. She’s waiting to hear how much she can be prorated when she retires early at 62. With extensive bills to pay off and a home to maintain for years to come, she’s going to need the money – and to manage it carefully.
Rent eats first.
Like the majority of older Americans – about 79 percent – Kathy owns her own home. She’s lived here for 26 years, she said, the first 18 without air conditioning. She hangs clothes on a long line in the backyard. Except for a large shelf near the door devoted to photographs of family members, decorations are modest.
But just recently, her old home has gotten some new additions. After requesting a visit, her house was retrofitted a couple of weeks ago by the Community Weatherization Coalition (CWC), an Alachua County organization focused on energy efficiency for low-income households. The program is part of Rebuilding Together North Central Florida, a home-repair organization dedicated to keeping people in their homes.
Kathy first heard about the organization through the University of Florida, where she works as a custodian on the first floor of the Marston Science Library. Members of the coalition added contraptions to her kitchen faucet and shower head to lower her water use. Kathy hasn’t had the upgrades for long, but she’s hoping they pay off. At $77 a month, she feels her water bill is high. She plans to retire in a year and two months, and wants to keep her utility costs down.
“This house is so old; it’s like over 50 years old,” Kathy said. “And I don’t plan on going nowhere.”
Energy burden, body burden
Across the clients served by Rebuilding Together and the CWC, a disproportionate number are seniors, said RD Bonner, the executive director of Rebuilding Together. That could be partly due to the organization’s’ marketing efforts, but it’s also because as seniors stop working, their means change.
“A lot of our clients end up being folks who worked all their lives and because of that, they get Social Security but they don’t make near enough through Social Security as they did when they were working,” he said.
The homes occupied by older people tend to be older as well, said Stephen Golant, a UF professor of gerontology. This makes the houses difficult to maintain and less likely to be well-insulated. But for these seniors, especially low-income seniors, energy is not only a financial burden; it can be a physical one.
Take heating and cooling. Lack of insulation makes homes hotter in the summer and colder in the winter, and older equipment could be costly should it break down. This means higher energy costs. But it also could lead to health consequences.
Sherry Ahrentzen of UF’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies said the effect of thermal conditions on seniors is at the forefront of public consciousness right now. After Hurricane Irma, one of the widely reported national stories was that of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where 11 elderly residents died after a loss in air conditioning in the nursing home.
“As you age, there’s just some physiological conditions that really do affect your body temperature and how you regulate your body temperature,” Ahrentzen said.
Before coming to UF, Ahrentzen took part in a study retrofitting the homes of low-income seniors in Phoenix. Primarily focusing on upgrading the energy efficiency of the homes, she measured the temperature, humidity and indoor air quality of the homes as well as the health of the residents. These measurements were taken before and after the retrofit. Ahrentzen found that even over a short period of less than a year, improvements in people’s sleep and emotional health were associated with the upgrades that stabilized indoor temperatures.
“They could sleep better, emotional health was better, and they also said they were just more satisfied with their thermal comfort,” she said.
When the air is not circulating properly, Golant said, it can be more difficult to breathe.
It’s not to say that other segments of the population don’t face problems when it comes to inefficient heating and air conditioning, he said. But he likens it to falling. Data doesn’t show if older people fall more, but because their injuries are more severe, their falls are reported more often.
“There’s no question, I think,” he said about the physiological responses to overheating, “that the risk is greater when you get older.”
Joyce and Edward Laws, both 66, live off East University Avenue in Gainesville. Inside their living room, they sit in arm chairs next to each other, Edward’s a leather reclining chair and Joyce’s an olive beige one.
In fall 2015, the CWC tuned up their home by installing a new electric water heater and replacing their refrigerator and toilet with more efficient models, among other improvements. Joyce said she was amazed by the coalition’s help in decreasing her utility bill from nearly $300 a month to closer to $250.
Some of the fixes, she said, were problems she didn’t even know existed.
While older people are not always able to afford repairs, Golant said, they also might not realize they need them.
“They get so used to the environment that they don’t really recognize that they have a problem,” he said.
Providing information and counseling, Golant said, is the key to better aging in place.
“These older people are not going to leave their houses because of the energy issues,” he said. “They love their houses; they’re attached to their houses.” So just as people schedule checkups for their bodies, checkups on houses should become an important activity as well.
But building better homes equipped for aging individuals to begin with, Ahrentzen said, is a long-term cultural change. Policy could force developers to adhere to certain efficiency standards, but it’s not an easy fix for a complex problem.
They love their houses; they’re attached to their houses.
Living low-income in an old home, Ahrentzen said, means people sometimes try to stretch resources. “Rent eats first,” is a quote she likes to use to sum it up.
“Many times, your first thing is you’ve got to have a roof over your head,” she said. “So that’s the first thing you put your money, your salary, your Social Security into. And afterwards, you can put food on the table or you can think about your energy – how comfortable you can be there – too.”
But aging bodies make maintenance even more difficult.
“As you get older,” Joyce said, “you can’t bend and move and pull and all this like you used to.”
Kathy, too, fears that everyday activities may become next to impossible. She soon won’t be able to push her lawn mower through the front yard. At some point later on, she said, she might not be able to hang her clothes to dry, as she has since she was a child.
Retiring – and the aging coming with it – will be no easy feat for her.
“I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to do it,” she said about her upcoming retirement.
“But I’m going to do it.”
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