- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Debbie Cochenour says there’s nothing better than a summer morning on her front porch with her newspaper and a front-seat view of rolling hills, lush trees and grazing horses.

For Cochenour, 63, the small, red brick home on two acres where she grew up in Hempfield has been her sanctuary since she moved back after a divorce 15 years ago.

Though multiple sclerosis limits her movements - she walks with a cane and can’t drive - the disease has not weakened her resolve to stay in her home and enjoy the view for as long as she can.

“I can’t imagine anything else,” Cochenour said. “This is home.”

Cochenour is among a growing number of older Pennsylvanians who are opting to “age in place,” using community-based services and support to avoid moving to nursing homes or in with their children.

In western Pennsylvania, between 45 percent and 50 percent of those 65 and older live alone, more than nearly every other region of the state, census figures show.

But as Cochenour and other Baby Boomers age, the demand for services to keep them in their homes is taxing the agencies charged with helping them.

Dreams meet reality

“About 95 percent (of senior citizens) would rather age in place than go to a nursing home,” said Ted Dallas, secretary of the state Department of Human Services.

But with that staggering demand comes the reality of what state officials are able to do for older citizens.

“The gap between what people want and what we’re able to do is pretty big,” Dallas said.

Gov. Tom Wolf directed Dallas and Secretary of Aging Teresa Osborne to explore how the state could contract with managed-care organizations to better coordinate in-home care for seniors and those with disabilities.

“(Wolf) lives in the house he grew up in. His parents live in the community as well,” Dallas said. “He was very clear (that) he wanted that for as many Pennsylvanians as possible.”

After meetings and public hearings across the commonwealth, state officials laid out a proposal for Community HealthChoices, a program expected to serve about 450,000.

The program will debut in Western Pennsylvania in January 2017. It’s expected to roll out in the east in 2018 and in central Pennsylvania in 2019.

Those eligible would work with one point of contact to coordinate physical, behavioral and long-term care. People currently work with multiple entities that often don’t communicate, Dallas said.

“We haven’t done a good job coordinating their care,” he said. “Our system has been fragmented.”

Assistance could range from simple tasks - installing a ramp in a home or providing a motorized wheelchair - to more complex in-home health care, Dallas said.

Osborne said the goal is to “provide (seniors) access to age in place with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Other options

Support for those aging at home often is provided by family members, neighbors, churches and community groups.

For Cochenour, the United Way’s Faith in Action program has filled the gaps.

Cochenour cooks her own meals and has made simple changes - such as moving into a first-floor bedroom - to make it easier to get around. Her medications are delivered, and a neighbor mows her lawn, she said.

But Cochenour often relies on Patty Allshouse, a volunteer with the Jacobs Creek Area Faith in Action, to drive her to medical appointments and the grocery store.

“She’s wonderful,” Cochenour said. “She does everything I need.”

Faith in Action, a national program, provides individuals with an average of two hours of help from volunteers each week - from basic home repairs to lawn care, cleaning and laundry.

Transportation to appointments is the most-requested service, said Melaney Hegyes, who coordinates five locations the program serves.

“We start to help them with something as simple as a ride to a doctor’s appointment, but then we provide visits and supportive phone calls to them,” Hegyes said.

Cochenour said she lived in Tarrs for 20 years while she was married, but when she got divorced in 2000, moving in with her mother and sister in the family home “was the best thing right then.”

Cochenour said she knows she might eventually have to think about a higher level of care.

The right help

A variety of programs on the county level are available to help seniors remain at home, depending on their age, financial situation and level of care needed, said Kate Johnson, administrative officer of Westmoreland County’s Area Agency on Aging.

The majority of the agency’s funding typically goes to providing in-home services.

“We provide intensive in-home care to those individuals who remain in their homes, and we do an individual service plan to ensure we have all their needs met and that it’s a safe option for them,” Johnson said. “We see that side of our office really expanding.”

Mildred Morrison, administrator for Allegheny County’s Area Agency on Aging, said many programs are expanding 3 percent to 5 percent a year, but the need for home-delivered meals is growing faster.

Allegheny County provides personal assistance to nearly 6,000 residents across all its programs, including help with bathing or dressing, doing laundry or having meals delivered.

“It’s one thing to be at home,” Morrison said. “It’s another to be living your life the way you want to at home.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1QzetPW

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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