Habitat for Humanity helps elderly


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It’s easy to talk about how many people it takes to screw in a light bulb.

“But there are some secrets,” said Mark Patton.

Patton, the executive director of the Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity, recently launched the program “Many Hands, Light Work” to rethink how volunteers can provide the most effective aid for their elderly community members and neighbors. And one of the things included in the training was the best way to change a bulb.

“We all have grandparents, friends who are elderly,” Patton said. “Why don’t we want to take a few minutes out of our day to help change a light bulb?”

Early in the morning on April 9, a cloudy sky greeted seven volunteers from the AM Iowa City Rotary Club and three local high-school students at the Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity, 2401 Scott Blvd. The group split into teams of three to visit nine homes of local seniors.

They changed light bulbs, fixed filters, and placed new batteries in smoke detectors.

Iowa City resident Dana Harr was one of the recipients.

The blind 61-year-old lives on her own after Parkinson’s forced her husband into assisted living in July. With a slashed income, she said, she’s glad for the help.

“It’s the first time I’ve had responsibility for everything,” Harr said.

Harr sat in a living room chair, making conversation with the group of three volunteers as they darted in and out of her various rooms, placing burned-out bulbs in a grocery bag and delicately screwing in new, energy efficient ones.

AM Iowa City Rotary Club President-elect Tom Novak, 52, said completing small tasks is important to the recipients and sometimes can go unnoticed in the many other daily tasks caregivers handle.

“It kind of falls through the cracks,” he said.

Patton said the importance of the program is to keep people independent and in their own homes.

“We know that baby boomers are coming of age, and many of them are homeowners, and many of them are far too young to move to another kind of housing,” he said.

In 2009, approximately 8 percent of the people in Johnson County were older than 65.

The Heritage Agency on Aging, Elder Services, and the Johnson County Crisis Center helped recruit interested seniors. The organization’s first event was not income-restricted because of the low number of applications.

Though officials planned to initiate the program earlier in the year, a lack of interest forced Patton to put the program on hold.

Though the number of applicants were small, Novak said, it’s a start.

“I think there’s a need here [in the community] and this gets the ball rolling,” he said.

This isn’t the only Habitat for Humanity organization rethinking its mission. Since the economic downturn, Patton said, the organization as a whole began to re-evaluate how it could effectively serve its community.

As officials saw more and more houses losing residents, they began to realize building more houses was counterproductive and, instead, began to work with existing homes. Patton said there are plans to expand the program and provide wheelchair ramps for homes that need it.

He said he also anticipates government budgeting for programs could put scrutiny on more programs, including ones such as Habitat for Humanity, and neighbors will help one another.

The Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity has put 61 families into homes of their own since 1994.

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