Free program supports Massachusetts seniors living at home

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COVID-19 has dramatically impacted older adults, through illness or the isolation often needed to keep them healthy. In Massachusetts, a free program is supporting those able to stay in their homes by partnering with families as the pandemic continues to take its toll.

Gloria Williams has always been independent. As she got older and her medical needs increased, she was determined to stay at her home in Dorchester.

“Just to leave my home and to a nursing home, I’m not ready for that yet,” Williams said.

So about 10 years ago, she joined MassPACE: Programs of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly. It’s a federally and state-funded program, an alternative to nursing home care that keeps seniors living at home.

“In general, older adults prefer to age in place at home if they can,” said Dr. Adam Burrows, medical director for the Upham’s Corner Health Center PACE program in Dorchester.

He said participants are 55 years and older, with medical and social needs that would qualify them for a nursing home. Instead, they’re trying to live at home and that’s where PACE teams come in.

“Made up of primary care providers, social workers, nurses, occupational and physical therapists, registered nurses, dietitians who together assess our participants, decide on a finely calibrated individualized care plans,” Burrows said.

Pre-COVID, much of this work had been done at the PACE centers — the clinical care as well social events — but the coronavirus changed that.

“So we relied on daily telephonic outreach. We relied on video technology. We relied upon staff going into homes,” Burrows said.

They also relied on family like Williams’ granddaughter, TaMarsha Williams. PACE hired and trained her to be Gloria’s personal care worker.

“It was all new to me, but I know I can give her the best care. When we were younger, she took care of me and my siblings and now it’s reversed. Me taking care of her, just trying to pay her back,” TaMarsha Williams said.

Burrows said that sense of community is exactly what PACE is about.

“When we think of taking care of these very vulnerable older adults, we’re also thinking about how do we create healthier households and healthier communities.”

There are 130 PACE programs across the country, eight of them in Massachusetts. Nationally, they’re seeing an increased interest in the program as families and older adults look for options.