Suncoast Centers for Independent Living loans 1,000 wheelchairs and other items of medical equipment annually to low-income seniors and people with disabilities

For those on the economic edge, getting access to a wheelchair, a walker or a power chair is like navigating a labyrinth. The difference is that you’re stuck in it for weeks — sometimes months.

The wait for access can often be the difference between staying in your home and being forced to leave for an assisted-living center, said Heidi Piccione, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida School of Physical and Rehabilitation Sciences.
Even with Medicaid and Medicare, these items can be out of reach for many of Sarasota and Manatee counties’ oldest, poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Enter the Suncoast Centers for Independent Living — one of only a handful of nonprofit organizations in the state that loans free wheelchairs, walkers, hospital beds, shower chairs, and other durable medical equipment to low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

The Medical Equipment Loan Program, launched in 2003, serves about 1,000 Manatee and Sarasota County residents per year who do not have the money or insurance to cover the cost of a $10,000 power chair, a $200 wheelchair or $15 shower chair.

All they need is a doctor’s note and proof that they live in households 200% below the federal poverty level. At most, people who use the program make $1,900 a month. But the majority earn below $850.

While many people who cannot afford crutches, walkers or wheelchairs often hunt through garage sales or the back of thrift stores, that equipment is often ill-suited or broken. It could also potentially cause further injury, said Piccione.

The Wheelchair Foundation of America and the Rotary Club will often donate large boxes of new wheelchairs. But most of the equipment at the Suncoast Centers for Independent Living is donated from the surrounding area — often from spouses or family members who spent months, years or lifetimes caring for loved ones.

The donations are cleaned, refurbished, and then snatched up almost as soon as they arrive. Some wait only a few days, others a few weeks. The special and hard-to-find items, such as Hover Lifts and specialized power chairs, sometimes take months.

“There’s no one to call when we need something,” said Livia Leyva, the nonprofit’s mobility coordinator. “There’s no warehouse or hotline. Nothing like that. There’s just waiting.”

Filling another gap
Another gap that the program fills is the few years before retirement age before someone is eligible to apply for Medicare, said Kathleen Housewart, a longtime manager of the Memory Care Clinic at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

“We all do the happy dance when we turn 65 because, for someone uninsured or underinsured, that means access to insurance and help with other services,” said Housewart, who also worked for Florida’s designated aging and disability resource center. “That means those who begin to see signs of illnesses associated with aging early can have greater access and chances to live independently.”

Low-income seniors and people with disabilities are also often at a greater risk of falling when they do not have access to medical equipment soon after a hospital discharge or recent diagnosis, said Piccione, who is also a board-certified geriatric physical therapist.

“Most do not have access to computers, the internet or a healthy support system that will point them in the direction of where to find affordable assistive technology,” Piccione said.

The Suncoast Centers for Independent Living tries to fill that gap, too. Special hearing devices and desktop computer loans for those who need it “often become the lifeline to connecting people with education and employment opportunities,” said Margaret Ann Behrends, the nonprofit’s community liaison.

Because few homes are built to accommodate a wheelchair or a walker, the nonprofit builds portable modular ramps and is also a major referral service for Sarasota County’s Barrier Removal Program, a grant and forgivable loan program that helps burden part of the cost associated with renovating a home to fit the needs for income-eligible disabled and elderly residents.

But the need for these services continues to grow, and there are obstacles to overcome.

For one thing, the nonprofit cannot keep shower chairs for more than a few days. Other items not covered by Medicaid or Medicare are also hard to

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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