West Roxbury

For West Roxbury seniors, home is the place to grow old
By Lucy Sutherland

The most compelling reason to live at home is the longer, better life it can bring.

Her words resonate.

“I like to be independent – not that I’m being mean, or fresh, or anything,” the bubbly great-grandmother said on a shopping expedition at Roche Bros. supermarket in West Roxbury.

In her mid-80s and still living in the house she’s occupied for decades, she reflects the dogged independence of many West Roxbury seniors these days.

More and more, they are choosing to grow old in their own homes.

West Roxbury, with its high-quality public transportation, abundant retail stores and plentiful social network, is an ideal neighborhood to grow old as independently as possible.

Dr. Frank Caro, director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said West Roxbury is distinctive for its predominantly single-family homes. “They’re not enormous, and they’re relatively manageable [for elders],” Caro said.

Phyllis and Robert Liljegren, 75 and 77, respectively, have owned their home at 48 Manthorne Road in West Roxbury for 43 years.

“We enjoy this area very much. [It’s] close to shopping areas and churches,” said Phyllis Liljegren.

“We have wonderful neighbors,” Robert Liljegren added. “They’ve been our neighbors for a long time. Everyone looks after each other.”

Even for seniors in their 80s and 90s, owning a home and having a close social network can embolden them to opt out of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other more institutional environments.

West Roxbury’s suburban character forces some elders to walk
long distances

“I think elders have the right to self-determination. As long as they are capable of making their own decisions, they should be able to make their own decisions,” said Marjorie Gann, care management director of Ethos, a largely state-funded organization that helps elders to live in their own homes in southwest Boston. “I think there’s a right to age where you have lived, surrounded by your belongings and the way you wish to live.”

State-funded Ethos, which is regulated by the division of Health and Human Services, subcontracts with various vendors to help homebound elders make meals, bathe, houseclean, shop and other tasks of daily living.

Cynthia Fey, director of Home Instead Senior Care in West Roxbury, said most seniors who opt to stay at home experience far fewer cognitive disabilities and have a better quality of life.

The number of residents 65 and over in West Roxbury has doubled from 1990 to 2000, while other age groups have declined or remained the same, according to the 2000 Census. The same report also shows that 40 percent of West Roxbury homeowners are seniors.

Fey said she suspects that the vast majority of seniors in West Roxbury are living in their own homes, either alone or with family, though she was unable to provide hard numbers.

Many in this exploding group are longtime homeowners with deep roots in the community. “They’ve lived in their homes for 30 to 50 years, and their children are still in the area,” said Fey.

A growing business field

With government-mandated organizations such as Ethos, taxpayer money can be used to aid elders living at home and to monitor the range and quality of services. And with the help of state funds, these services cost just a few hundred dollars a month for most clients.

“A lot of private agencies make you buy four hours [of service] at a clip, per day, and that gets expensive,” Gann said.

But private agencies, despite their higher prices, are also growing in West Roxbury and beyond. In the last few years, private sector companies like Home Instead Senior Care have been capitalizing on the quickly expanding market for senior home assistance.

Home Instead has expanded from about 350 locations nationally to nearly 500 in the last four years. In West Roxbury, business is brisk and the client list is expanding, said Fey.

For many served by this growing market of public and private help, the most compelling reason is independence and quality of life.

“I think our oldest client is 106…you don’t expect someone of 106 living at home,” Gann said. “With a tremendous amount of help, she’s living at home.”

Tight-knit religious communities in West Roxbury keep elders connected to their neighborhoods.

But there can be a down side, she acknowledges. Living at home can contribute to isolation and risk of injury, especially for those who don’t consider themselves old, Gann said.

For these frail elders who don’t have outside help, home life can be a minute-to-minute struggle with daily living.

“You look at the number of houses built with tubs, which means you’ve got to climb in that tub, climb out, even if it’s got a shower,” Gann said. “Think what’s involved, in terms of muscle strength.”

For most elders who are still enjoying life at home, the rewards outweigh the challenges, especially for seniors who have a close social network.

For Mary DeRoma, 84, living at home works well because many of her friends have chosen to do the same. DeRoma, who gives the occasional whist party for neighborhood friends, said there are plenty of places to go on other days. “Every day this week I’ve been out,” she said.

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