Winning collaboration makes homes safer for aging Angelenos


On February 11, two days before the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl LVI win, Henrietta Dunlap-Mabin was already on the front porch cheering – for a team of eight volunteers who spent the day painting her mother’s house, landscaping the yard and installing new solar lights beside the front walk. The house also sported brand new kitchen cabinets, a spacious walk-in shower in place of the old bathtub, new handrails on the front and back steps, and numerous other safety-enhancing repairs that volunteers had completed on previous visits to the home in South Los Angeles.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I’m amazed at what they can do.”

Dunlap-Mabin, 65, said she travels to Los Angeles from Las Vegas multiple times each week to care for her mother, 85-year-old Annie May Anderson, who faces challenges with mobility and dementia. As she worked to make the home safer for her mother, Dunlap-Mabin learned about the nonprofit Rebuilding Together, made up of over 120 affiliates across the country that provide home repairs and modifications to help community members stay in their homes.

The home’s extensive renovation was part of this year’s Kickoff to Rebuild, a partnership between Rebuilding Together, home improvement retailer Lowe’s, Omaze and other community partners, including the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, to provide essential home repairs for Los Angeles residents. In total, the Super Bowl-sanctioned event provided 16 families in Los Angeles with home repairs, including roof replacements, bathroom upgrades, kitchen installations, landscaping, window repairs and fresh paint.

The 2022 event is the first Kickoff to Rebuild for Rebuilding Together of the City of Angels (RTCOA), the Los Angeles affiliate of Rebuilding Together, which launched in 2020 with support from the USC Leonard Davis School. The affiliate is particularly focused on helping older Angelenos living in the areas surrounding USC age in place safely, said Leon Watts III, learning and development specialist for the school and a member of the RTCOA advisory board.

According to a 2021 survey by AARP, 77 percent of US adults 50 and older want to remain in their homes for the long term, but more than a third of respondents also admitted that their home would probably need physical changes, from ramps and grab bars to extensive remodeling, to best support them as they got older. Watts and RTCOA executive director Zeeda Daniele found that many older adults in the area around the university were dealing with challenges not only regarding their health and safety at home but also from outside issues, such as gentrification, that affected their ability to age in place.

“One of the things that we saw and recognized that there was this marginalized population of seniors that have been living in this community that wanted to stay but were not being served,” said Daniele. “What Leon and I found is that they are fighting every day to stay in the community that they love, but the home is failing them in many instances.”

Educating professionals to better serve individuals and communities

The USC Leonard Davis School has a wealth of expertise in safety, fall prevention and home modification for older adults. The school is home to the USC Fall Prevention Center of Excellence (FPCE), which is led by Professor Jon Pynoos and is dedicated to promoting aging in place and independent living for persons of all ages and abilities through research, training, and technical assistance.

The center’s Executive Certificate in Home Modification (ECHM), first designed and launched in 2004 by Pynoos, USC Leonard Davis Senior Associate Dean Maria Henke, and FPCE Senior Learning and Development Specialist and ECHM manager, Julie Overton, is a suite of online courses designed for a variety of professionals who work directly or indirectly in the field of supportive home environments, from remodelers, contractors and project planners to program managers and occupational and physical therapists. Students receive not only the latest information on home modification research and products but also instruction on funding strategies, policies, and community planning.

Before coming to the Leonard Davis School, Watts owned a remodeling business for decades. He recognized the need to add gerontology knowledge to his toolbox as his clients aged, and he received his Master of Arts in Gerontology from the school in 2017. Following graduation, he joined the staff of the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence, where he first began working with the ECHM program.

“The whole design of the ECHM program was amazing to me,” Watts said. “I could see how important it is and how it made a difference.”

In 2020, the USC Leonard Davis School and Rebuilding Together created a partnership to provide the Executive Certificate in Home Modification program at a discounted tuition rate to Rebuilding Together affiliate staff, and since then, dozens of RT personnel have earned their certificate, joining more than 2000 alumni of the program. Affiliates throughout the nation are using the course series to grow the Safe at Home program, which provides no-cost home modifications to people with mobility issues and other disabilities to improve accessibility, reduce falls, increase independence and facilitate aging-in place.

“The ECHM program is gold for this organization. … The whole course was just fantastic,” said Terry Scott, program consultant for Rebuilding Together. Scott, who worked as a builder for 40 years, was a member of the first cohort of Rebuilding Together ECHM students in 2020. He praised the program’s broad scope, which includes not only information on aging and home safety but also education on how professionals can better build partnerships with other organizations and identify resources for their businesses.

Scott added that he especially appreciated the program’s client-centric focus on acknowledging where people are, what needs they have, and how to find creative and unique solutions to problems. It’s something he said he understands deeply after living with mobility challenges during his recovery from an accident, and he’s grateful for how the ECHM program provides this kind of perspective to students. “We need to open our eyes and understand how people live every day,” he said.

Supporting contractors who work with Rebuilding Together in completing the ECHM program has greatly strengthened the organization’s capabilities, Daniele said.

“The ECHM program not only teaches them how to do a highly sophisticated design or redesign; it also talks about ethics,” Daniele said. “It makes for a better service provider. It changes how they go about their business, the quality, the clarity, the transparency.”

There’s no place like home

Along with the professionals who complete the ECHM program, both Watts and Daniele said they would also like to have USC Leonard Davis students get involved with Rebuilding Together, including through possible volunteering, internships, and employment opportunities in the future.

“This partnership between USC and Rebuilding Together presents opportunities for students to get some firsthand experience seeing what older adults’ needs for their homes are like and understanding the need for their professionalism when they graduate,” Watts said. “I find that anytime you get the students involved with seniors, it inspires them; it makes them understand exactly why they’re taking their courses in gerontology.”

During the Kickoff to Rebuild, Watts served as the site captain for the Anderson home, leading a team of volunteers made of employees from various Lowes locations. As the team finished the painting and landscaping and cleaned up the yard, Dunlap-Mabin thanked the volunteers, posed for pictures with them and joked that “the whole neighborhood would be jealous” of the home’s improvements.

She was especially excited for her mother to enjoy the refreshed porch, where she likes to sit in the evening and greet her neighbors on the close-knit block where she has lived for decades, she added. “She’s been a mom for everybody in this neighborhood.”

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