NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania provides home repairs and safety modifications for older adults.

By Cecily Sailer
Photos and video by Jim Tuttle

Care, Health, Housing
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James Kuchwara was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He spent 40 of his 71 years, working for a local utility company, until he retired six years ago.

A Vietnam war veteran, Kuchwara says he began to feel his age more acutely after a double knee-replacement several years ago. “People want to stay young all their lives,” Kuchwara says. “But guess what? You can stay young, but your body gets old.”

The physical limitations of aging made it more difficult for Kuchwara to get around in the home he bought with his wife Linda 13 years ago — a home he still very much enjoys. Getting in and out of the shower became more hazardous and, for awhile, getting down to his finished basement was off limits. 

Kuchwara reached out to his Pennsylvania state representative to ask for help. He was referred to NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania (NWNEPA), a nonprofit that runs an aging-in-place program to help homeowners 60 and older in Lackawanna County continue living in their homes rather than relocating to nursing facilities.

“We provide critical safety modifications, small home repairs, and volunteer services large and small so you don’t have to leave the place where all of your memories are,” says Mary Endrusick, Aging in Place coordinator for NeighborWorks.

Homeowners who apply to the program receive a visit from NeighborWorks staff to assess the state of the home. Then an occupational therapist meets with each resident to determine which improvements are most needed. Those recommendations are passed on to the construction manager, who coordinates a crew to make the repairs.

Upgrades can include the addition of grab bars in the bathroom, the conversion of a bathtub to a walk-in shower, elevated toilets, stair glides, outdoor ramps, porch and step repair, yard work, and added lighting.

James Kuchwara shows off one of the grab bars NeighborWorks installed in his bathroom to help prevent falls or injuries. “It eases your mind to realize that you’re not going to be placed in a nursing home,” says James Kuchwara. “You have actually all the safety features that a nursing home has for their patients.”

In Kuchwara’s home, NeighborWorks installed grab bars in the bathrooms, painted around the windows, and raised the height of his toilet, which helped his recovering knees. All of these repairs — for Kuchwara and other clients — are funded by grants from the Weinberg Foundation, Lackawanna County Area Agency on Aging, Scranton Area Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability Fund.

“They worked and they showed so much friendship and love while they were doing it,” Kuchwara says. “They just made everything safe. It eases your mind to realize that you’re not going to be placed in a nursing home. You actually have all the safety features that a nursing home has for their patients.”

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 89 percent of Americans over the age of 50 want to remain in their homes for as long as possible. Doing so protects social connections with friends and family, allowing adults to stay engaged in their communities longer, all of which help reduce depression while increasing cognition and physical function.

Beyond the social and emotional benefits, aging in place also means substantial cost savings for older adults, compared to living in a nursing home. “The typical, critical safety modification here in Scranton costs around $10,000,” Endrusick says. “However, the typical cost of a nursing home facility stay is $3,500 to $4,500 — that’s per month.”

Forty percent of residents in Scranton are 60 or older, and many of the homes in the area are older as well, dating back to the 1940s. Most are multi-storied, with master bedrooms and full bathrooms on the second floor, laundry rooms in the basement, and first-floor bathrooms with no shower or bath.

Video: How NWNEPA helps Scranton seniors

“They come up with their little tricks,” says Ellen Holden, the Aging in Place specialist for NeighborWorks. “One woman threw the laundry down the basement steps, walked downstairs, did her wash, then brought the basket up step by step. We hear that quite often, which is scary.”

Since launching its Aging in Place program in 2018, NeighborWorks NEPA has provided home upgrades to nearly 350 adults. From the time of an initial referral, it typically takes a year to complete repairs. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process somewhat, and NWNEPA’s wait list has grown as a result.

Kristin Luongo, an occupational therapist for NeighborWorks, says she typically works with about 20 clients per year. She meets with homeowners early in the process to understand their physical limitations and identify the adjustments that enable residents to remain safely at home for as long as possible. 

“To be able to have a hand in helping people just take control of their lives again and say, ‘I worked hard for this place, I love this place, I’ve made memories here, this is where I want to enjoy the time I have left’ — to be able to help them make that choice,” says Luongo, “to be able to stay there safely — that’s why I started doing what I’m doing.”

As Kuchwara walks through his home, he points out a photo of himself in his full military dress uniform standing with his grandchildren on Memorial Day a few years after he retired. He shows off his basement — his “man cave” — adorned with team memorabilia from the University of Notre Dame. Photos and decorations throughout the home allude to his Irish heritage, and outside on his deck, he points to a flag pole flying the American flag, which he installed to honor veterans like himself. 

“There is so much good in this country, and NeighborWorks is part of that good,” Kuchwara says. “We’ve lived in this house for almost 13 years. It’s really good living here.”

Top photo: James Kuchwara, age 71, sits on his bed in the Scranton home he purchased 13 years ago. After retiring from a 40-year career with a local utility company, Kuchwara underwent double knee replacement surgery. NeighborWorks NEPA installed grab bars in his bathrooms, put in an elevated toilet, and repainted his window exteriors to help him remain in his home longer.