University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences students help save a Hastings home

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Fannie Mae Johns, 77, and her daughter Sandra Thomas have been holding out hope for a better quality of life.

Johns, a widow, has endured several strokes and relies on a wheelchair to get around. As a result, she could no longer get into the bedroom or bathroom of her Hastings home.

She has been confined to her own living room, where she must sleep, bathe and attend to her private needs. Thomas, of Palatka, has been living with her mother to help her.

Everything about their daily life is difficult and what began as a temporary situation has become an ongoing struggle.

“It’s starting to get a little easier looking after her,” she said. “I didn’t know how to do this or what I was doing, but since I’ve been here for the long run, I know what to do now.”

That long run has been about three years. For two weeks out of each month, Thomas gets help from siblings who come in rotations.

“I’m here to take care of my mother because she can’t take care of herself,” she said. “I’m happy to do it because she cared so much for me when I was little.”

Help arrives

Johns has been a client with the St. Johns Housing Partnership for a couple of years. The partnership recently selected her home to undergo modifications as part of a project with the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.

Twenty-one students in the master’s program for occupational therapy helped the SJHP perform repairs Friday. The Home Depot also donated building materials for the project.

The goal is to help Johns be able to live independently once again.

The SJHP teamed with professor Julie Watson’s assisted technology and community service course to provide students hands-on experience while helping someone in need.

“It’s about training them to know what to look for and how to come up with low-cost solutions, because not everybody has money to overhaul their whole home,” Watson said.

The project gave students a chance to conduct a real-life home assessment. They also organized three fundraising events this fall to support the work necessary to make the home livable.

“In the past, we had them do assessments on each other’s homes but it’s hard and it lacks context when you don’t have someone who is real,” she said. “This really gave them the opportunity to come into a real home, meet a real person, and see what it’s really like in their home and not in a perfect or imaginary situation.”

The partnership began about two years ago, resulting in 11 projects with more than $8,000 in fundraising to support the work done on each home. Watson does three projects a year with different groups of students.

“We come in and we look at what the home needs for the person in order to make it accessible,” she said.

Past projects have included building wheelchair ramps, widening doorways, modifying bathrooms, repairing floors and installing usable shelving or transfer chairs.

A different perspective

Susan Giddens, project manager for the SJHP, said the collaboration has helped both the students and the housing partnership.

“(Watson) actually sits down, interviews the client and wants to see how they operate and move in their home, and I’ve taken note of that,” she said. “It was the most important thing and it was going right over my head.”

She said she had previously done projects with plans going in and never thought to take the time to observe how clients moved around from room to room.

“Every day we learn,” she said. “Every day that we help someone, that’s one more person who gets to stay in their home as opposed to living in a rehab or a nursing home.”

Outside of special programs, insurance companies do not cover the costs for people to make modifications to their homes to make them accessible. Still, Giddens said it is generally more cost-efficient to keep someone in the home than to place them elsewhere.

Student Emily Hall, originally from Tallahassee, said that occupational therapy was about identifying needs and finding low-cost and realistic solutions. She decided to get involved after her mother received help from an occupational therapist following a severe car crash. She said she wanted to do be able to do the same for others.

“It’s one thing to read about it in textbooks,” Hall said. “We tend to forget that there are people right here in our neighborhood having difficulty.”

Giddens said any rehab project involving elderly clients should include an occupational therapist during the home assessment to see things from a different perspective.

“I’m just happy for my mother,” Thomas said. “She worked so hard for this home. All her life she worked on the farm for this.”

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