Bishop Hills keeps pace with the times

July 10, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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It's a tough economy for everybody, including Michigan's seniors who need to make the transition from their homes to assisted living or skilled care facilities and don't know where to begin.

It's not easy, either, for the facility operators, especially if they are a single-site, independent business such as Bishop Hills in Rockford.

"It's pretty tough in this environment for an independent to be able to operate a facility like this. That's why you don't see too many of them," said Susan Bodenner, administrator of Bishop Hills Elder Care Community at 4951 11 Mile Road NE in Rockford. It is a 13-year-old business started and owned by Bodenner and her husband, Jim, with a track record of good reports from state regulators and an innovative philosophy that has involved its residents in community service activities from Rockford to the Caribbean.

Bishop Hills is licensed for 47 residents and has had no vacancies during the last three years.

"We run pretty much full all the time," said Bodenner, adding that situation is not necessarily true for other facilities in the Grand Rapids area.

"We don't have a big waiting list but it keeps pace with what we have for openings," she said.

The recession has been particularly hard on elderly individuals who need to move from their homes to an assisted living environment.

"A lot of times, the potential resident is going to use his or her resources from the sale of their house, so you’ve got that issue. If they have investments, then you’ve got that issue," said Bodenner, referring to both the drop in home values and the drop in the stock market since October. "So they are more wary and more cautious about when they can make a move to a setting that will give them assistance. It's more likely that they will wait longer — especially if it's going to depend on the sale of a house."

Knowing who to call for help is a major issue for aging individuals who can no longer effectively remain in their homes. Bodenner noted that a couple of years ago, the state of Michigan funded the "single point of entry" program as a pilot project in four areas of the state "because they could see that it was being of some service. And just recently, the funds got cut," said Bodenner. "So now there's no single point of entry number that people can call."

The single point of entry program officially became the Michigan Long Term Care Connection — what the state called a "demonstration initiative" — but it was eliminated by the governor's executive order in June as part of budget cuts in response to the state's financial crisis. People are now referred to other sources of information and assistance in their own county, which in Kent County is the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan.

Peggy Brey, interim director of the Michigan Office of Long-term Care Support and Services, said the Long Term Care Connection program worked very well in providing a single point of entry for seniors. She said there is work underway to at least establish a toll-free number that people anywhere in the state can call to be directed to sources of help. In the meantime, she said, they can call her office at (517) 373-4355.

In view of the fiscal problems affecting Michigan, "everyone in the state is trying to do the best we can," said Brey, adding that they are "working to retool this and figure out what we can do to make sure people get what they need."

Suzanne Filby-Clark, director of care management services at the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan, said the Long Term Care Connection performed two major functions: It provided information about the options open to those seeking long-term care, and it was also responsible for making the level of care determination in each individual's case.

She noted that the MI Choice Medicaid Waiver program is facing an 8 percent cut in state funding. MI Choice provides services in the individual's home and is for anyone age 18 and older who qualifies for Medicaid and is deemed at high risk for nursing home placement. The cost of in-home care is far less than that of moving into a facility.

One new program established by Kent County government earlier this year should prove of value to veterans who can no longer remain in their homes, according to Bodenner. That is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides financial aid and other assistance to honorably discharged, wartime veterans or their widow/widower who are residents of Kent County. County commissioners established the Kent County Veterans Affairs department with a unanimous vote in October, and the agency made its official debut on New Year’s Day to become only the fifth department of its kind in the state.

The Veterans Affairs office replaces the county’s Soldiers and Sailors Relief Commission and is in the same building. SSRC became a traditional stop for many veterans and their families after it opened more than a century ago. Currently, an estimated 37,891 veterans live in Kent County.

"On many occasions, (veterans) have been bounced around when they’ve come for various services, and we want to minimize the frustration level that at times occurs with veterans,” said Wayman Britt, assistant Kent County administrator when it was announced in January.

Bodenner noted that there is a monthly benefit available from the federal Veterans Administration to help vets pay for the cost of living in a licensed assistant living facility.

Some veterans are eligible for a VA benefit that pays up to $1,632 per month for those who saw active service, and $1,055 per month for their spouse.

"I can tell you in the years I've been helping veterans, I've only had two people who even knew that benefit existed," she said.

Amvets had previously run a program to provide that information to veterans, but that program lost its funding, she said.

Some companies or individuals charge a fee to help vets with their benefits, said Bodenner, which she objects to.

"There is not to be any charge for helping people with their VA benefits," she said.

In addition, she said some of those for-profit businesses and individuals do not have sufficient knowledgeable about VA benefits to be truly helpful.

"We actually had two people who were told they didn't qualify" for the veterans’ assisted living benefit, said Bodenner. "We were suspicious of that decision and had Amvets take a look at it, and they actually did qualify." Both individuals were World War II vets and both now live at Bishop Hills.

Obviously, the Bodenners have an affinity for veterans. A few years ago residents of Bishop Hills began making cookies and sending them in gift bags to U.S. Navy ships deployed in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. To date, more than 22,000 gift bags have gone to more than 80 ships. And there is also a knitting group among the residents that has sent more than a hundred baby blankets to new fathers serving aboard Navy ships. The new dads receive the blanket when they disembark and then have a present for their newborn when they get home.

A few years ago, Bishop Hills residents raised $400 that was used by a Rotary Club in the Dominican Republic as seed money to buy sand water filters for a poor community there. Jim Bodenner later took the idea to local Rotary International chapters in West Michigan, where he was able to raise an additional $10,000 for purchase of 3,000 filters for Dominican Republic villages. Now Cascade Engineering makes lightweight sand filters out of plastic, and thousands have been delivered by U.S. Navy ships to areas in the world where impure water is a threat.

Other activities that keep Bishop Hills residents active and involved with the community include a reading program with a nearby school, in which the students read to the residents in between sessions of a mind-challenging game both young and old play, involving stacking plastic cups.

Bishop Hills employs 45 people, mostly part-timers, and has been the recipient of several awards from the state of Michigan.

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