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Independent Living program helps islanders help themselves

(Top) Robert Bisson wheels up the ramp outside his Rhododendron apartment with his German Shepherd-mix Prince. The Housing Resources Board’s Independent Living program found Bisson the apartment and oversaw the construction of the improvements to make it accessible.  (Left) Bob Peterson at home in his Ihland Way condominium. The space was equipped with handrails and other modifications with the help of the Independent Living program. The program helps island residents live at home safely. - Brad Camp/Staff Photos
(Top) Robert Bisson wheels up the ramp outside his Rhododendron apartment with his German Shepherd-mix Prince. The Housing Resources Board’s Independent Living program found Bisson the apartment and oversaw the construction of the improvements to make it accessible. (Left) Bob Peterson at home in his Ihland Way condominium. The space was equipped with handrails and other modifications with the help of the Independent Living program. The program helps island residents live at home safely.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photos

Independent Living consultants help islanders overcome obstacles that

prevent them from living alone.

It was little more than six years ago that Robert Bisson became homeless.

He was forced to move unexpectedly from a rental house near Belfair and, without money for a new lease, he began couch surfing. He would drag his wheelchair up flights of stairs to crash on friends’ couches, or spend nights in the woods with his dog, Prince.

It’s a tough existence for anyone, but for Bisson, who lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident at age 17, it was life-threatening.

Soon the pad on his wheelchair had deflated and he couldn’t afford to replace it. The wear took a toll on his body and he developed a painful pressure sore.

It was time to get help.

“I was pretty much at my wit’s end,” Bisson said. “I didn’t know what to do, so I checked myself into a hospital.”

Now, fresh from a reconstructive surgery and nearly five years at Island Health and Rehabilitation Center on Bainbridge, Bisson is contemplating a new life after moving into a cluttered but comfortable one-bedroom apartment in the Rhododendron complex off High School Road.

A ramp and walkway installed off the back door provide access to the parking lot and a grassy area that he and Prince appreciate.

Finding a new home with a dog, no credit history and the demands of a wheelchair wasn’t easy, but Bisson had help. As he neared the end of his recovery, Julie Stone, coordinator of the Independent Living program, a department of the city-funded Housing Resources Board, became involved at the request of Island Health and began a thorough search for Bisson’s new home.

Stone worked with Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority managers to secure Bisson an apartment in the publicly managed Rhododendron complex, and arranged for the installation of the concrete ramp and walkway to the back door.

Bisson moved in this fall and has gained back 40 pounds since his surgery in June. With a stable home for the first time in many years, he is beginning to embrace a brighter future. He’d like to find a job working with animals or kids.

“I’m kind of stuck on that,” Bisson said. “I’m happy just to have a place to live.”

Most Independent Living participants are seniors, people with mobility impairments and those rehabilitating from hospital stays. Stone’s job is to help clients successfully navigate through a series of actions that ultimately allow them to live at home when they might otherwise have to move into assisted living.

“It’s for people who have made that decision to be at home and to be safe,” Stone said.

After being contacted by a potential participant, a project manager begins the process with an in-house visit and assessment of the household’s needs. An occupational therapist is also called in for a consultation.

Frequently the needed improvements are mobility-related, such as grab bars, ramps, lowered appliances and bathroom modifications.

With a list of needs in hand, the manager arranges for the work to be done by contractors and oversees the projects to completion.

In 2007, the program assisted 79 islanders with advice and resources. Of those, 31 received grants for home improvements.

In the last year the number of calls to the program have remained steady, but fewer individuals have followed through with improvement projects. Stone said the uncertain economic climate seems to have had a chilling effect on potential participants.

“They’re just not reaching out,” Stone said. “Even when there are grants and money available, they just want to maintain the status quo. We want them to know that our program is out there, and use us if there is any way we can make their lives better.”

Bob Peterson, is one islander enjoying a fresh start with support from his family and the Independent Living program.

The 82-year-old is living alone after moving last year into a condominium on Ihland Way, which he rents from his daughter.

Peterson’s family has deep Bainbridge roots, but life has taken him around the globe.

His grandfather was the superintendent of the Port Blakely Mill, part of a Swedish enclave south of Eagle Harbor. Peterson, who grew up in Tacoma, made frequent childhood visits to the family home on New Sweden Road.

He was drafted into World War II when he was 18 and after leaving the service he spent time in the South Pacific and Hawaii, working with churches on social programs and studied psychology.

Eventually he made his way back to the Northwest. When his health worsened, his daughter Liisa, a Bainbridge resident, helped him find a place in a retirement community in Bremerton.

But even in that independent community Peterson felt his horizons narrowing and didn’t enjoy the company.

“I hate old people,” Peterson said. “They talk about all their aches and pains. At 40, they have decided they can stop learning. I don’t feel old mentally...physically I do.”

Knowing her father was “itchy” for new surroundings, Liisa purchased the condominium on Ihland Way. She had heard of the Independent Living program through a family member and contacted Stone for advice as she began adjusting the space for Peterson, whose mobility is gradually lessening because of a degenerative leg condition.

Liisa said she was impressed by Stone’s unwavering stance on home safety and the way she pushed for improvements that her father didn’t see as necessary.

“I really appreciated how much she was advocating with my dad,” Liisa said. “In a very positive way she didn’t back down, and I thought it made a really big difference in how he looks at safety around his home.”

Peterson’s condominium is now equipped with a handrail off the back porch, handles in the bathroom and a modified entry to the garage where he keeps his electric scooter.

His living room is lined with books and old movies. A map of the world covers an entire wall behind a favorite chair.

Peterson keeps up an active life, visiting family and friends and teaching monthly theology classes at the retirement community he moved from.

Many of the changes needed for Peterson to live alone were small, but he said the move made a world of difference.

“It was the most wonderful, free feeling I could imagine,” he said.

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