When people find their mobility declining, either from aging or disease, even getting out the door of their own home can become an impossible feat — and accommodations to make movement possible can be cost-prohibitive.
After being diagnosed with ALS last year, Gwen McMartin sold her two-story St. Helens home and moved into a single-story home. But even that home has a few steps up to the door, which McMartin couldn't safely navigate in her current state, with leg braces and a walker — and certainly won't be able to navigate when the disease eventually puts her in a wheelchair, she said.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, affects the nerve cells that control muscle movement. It is progressive, which means the symptoms worsen over time, and there is no known cure.
"I'm affected primarily in my legs. I can still move my leg some, but I don't have enough strength to walk on my own," McMartin said.
For people with ALS and other disabilities, even getting in and out of the house can be difficult.
"I initially was looking to have a ramp built, or a ramp installed, up to my front door. And I was having trouble finding a contractor who would be available to do that," McMartin said.
McMartin was familiar with Community Action Team because she had family members that had participated in other programs the nonprofit runs, so she reached out for help.
Neal Jones, a facilities specialist with CAT, came to McMartin's home to look at what would work in the space and recommended a wheelchair lift.
McMartin is now the first participant in CAT's revolving wheelchair ramps and lifts program.
CAT had a wheelchair lift on hand that had originally been intended for a different client, but that plan had fallen through.
"Since we had this in inventory, we decided to come up with this program, just a revolving ramps and lifts program, and kind of kick it off with this installation," Jones said.
Once McMartin no longer needs the wheelchair lift, it will be returned to CAT for use by another community member.
CAT has provided wheelchair lifts and ramps before, generally as grants. The cost starts at a few hundred dollars for ramps, or a few thousand for lifts, but either can exceed that amount depending on materials and size.
"We're hoping that this will be a little bit more sustainable, and a lot less funding going into it at some point, when we can go ahead and have some of these lifts and ramps coming back to us," Jones said.
McMartin's son Ian had participated in CAT's "self-help owner-occupied rehabilitation program," which provides materials and guidance for people doing their own home improvement work. Since CAT staff knew Ian McMartin had the skills necessary, he and his father were able to extend the landing in Gwen McMartin's garage and install the wheelchair lift.
"My son does work in construction and remodeling, so he made up a material list. They (CAT) bought the materials and dropped it off, and then my son built the expanded landing," McMartin explained.
She added, "I just can't say enough good things about Community Action Team. They've just been great. (They've) taken their time, they're not rushed. They're very helpful. It was really great to finally get something going to make getting in and out of the house more accessible."
McMartin was diagnosed last October, a year after her symptoms first started. There is no one test for ALS; rather, doctors test nerve function and run tests to eliminate a variety of other conditions that can present similarly to ALS.
McMartin, who is 72, initially started falling somewhat frequently.
"I had kind of lost the spring in my step. And so I thought there was something wrong with my ankles or my hips," she said.
After months of physical therapy, tests, and appointments with different specialists, McMartin received her diagnosis.
"It wasn't what I wanted to hear … it was a real eye-opener, but like I said, there's a lot of support," McMartin said.
The ALS Association funds research and provides support resources for people with ALS and their families.
At CAT, the idea for a ramp program came from a former client. CAT had installed a wheelchair ramp for the client, and after he died, the ramp was donated to CAT.
"That inspired this program. We had one wheelchair ramp come back to us, and we were able to reinstall that ramp a week or two later, so somebody else got to use it," Jones said.
The new program only has enough funding so far for a couple ramps or lifts, but Jones is hopeful that more funding can be found if there's demand.
CAT runs a "Healthy Homes" program, which provides grants for essentially "any type of repairs that'll help a client stay out of the hospital," which include roof repairs to fix mold problems, carpeting, grab bars and anti-slip mats for bathrooms, and more. That program can fund lifts and ramps, but they don't necessarily come back to CAT after the client dies, moves or otherwise doesn't need the device anymore.
"Ultimately, the lifts and the ramps are critical for accessibility — and even escape, if there was a fire," Jones said. "There's a huge problem with us just finding the funding available to do this sort of thing. And typically, when we do find the funding, we are able to exhaust that funding fairly quickly. We're hoping that this model will help us reduce that over time. So maybe in 10 years, we start to see a large amount of these coming back to us at some point, and we can start putting them back in."
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