Thanks to HRB’s Independent Living Program, a walk-in tub and grab bars allow one man to retain his independence in a cherished home. [Photo above: Program Coordinator Irene Herman consults with a contractor.]

In a large forest clearing on the north end of the island is a one-story, shingled home belonging to Jim Thomas. It wasn’t always as snug and inviting as it is today. The previous owners had left it a mess with a yard of packed dirt and some abandoned chickens to boot. But when the price is right, as it was 36 years ago, and you’re good with your hands and short on cash, you take it. Jim cleaned the place up, and over time, replaced the kitchen linoleum, installed a gas fireplace, and planted an expansive lawn, some rhodies out front, and a vegetable garden whose footprint rivals that of the house. Today, the living room is decorated with model boats built by a friend and dominated by a deep, soft sofa. It’s his piece of paradise, hard won, lovingly tended, and not easily relinquished.

Recently, the house had another round of improvements, but not the sort that Jim could do himself these days or would have even thought to do if it weren’t for his doctor. “How are you getting around?” she asked him, when she saw him walking “funny” after a recent car accident. But what she didn’t see posed more of a danger than his unsteady gait. Jim was using the glass shower door as a support as he stepped over the side of a deep tub. To keep from falling, he washed his face and hair with one hand, the other pressed against the wall, and his eyes open.

She knew he needed grab bars in the tub at the very least and referred him to Independent Living. This HRB program performs home repairs and modifications, like those grab bars as well as walkway improvements, ramps, mold mitigation, and more, so that older adults and people with disabilities can remain in the homes they love and in the community they know. Age in place, it’s called, though many in the profession, who have seen the results firsthand, prefer “thrive in place.” The work is done free of charge.

Through the program, Jim had his bathtub replaced with a large walk-in shower and three grab bars installed. He also had two handrails added along the steps on his back and font porches. Independent Living Program Coordinator Irene Herman oversaw the entire process, from working with Jim to assess his needs and hiring contractors to inspecting the work and following up to identify outstanding issues. “I hold your hand through the process,” says Irene. “You are not alone through any piece of a project, not from the beginning to the end, and beyond, really.”

Jim is not his real name. Like so many of Irene’s clients, he feels the stigma of receiving free services and chose to hide his identity for this story. The program serves Bainbridge residents who earn at or below 80% of the area median income ($52,750 in Kitsap County for a single-person household). “They are uncomfortable receiving services because they don’t feel deserving,” says Irene. “They say things like, ‘I’ve never asked for government benefits.’” There’s no basis to it, she argues. “These services are waiting for them. What I tell my clients all the time is that we are predominantly city funded. You pay your taxes, so you’ve essentially already paid for these services.”

Jim retired from driving a truck three years ago. Before that, he worked stints on commercial fishing boats and once owned a landscaping business. Today he relies on social security. Still, he protested, “I’m not broke. I got money in the bank. I always paid my way.” A review of his bank statements indicated he was in fact eligible, but even then, he tried to pay. “I got your check here,” he recalled Irene saying. “I’m going to rip it up.”

He was equally stubborn when it came to making changes in his home. Things were working just fine, he told himself. The reality was another story. He had tripped on a tree root not long ago. He wasn’t hurt, but he couldn’t get up. “What the hell’s wrong with me?” he recalls thinking. “I was embarrassed.” He crawled over to a tree and grabbed hold of it to get back on his feet.

Irene encounters a second stigma in this work—the stigma of old age. “It’s not a sexy topic. No one wants to talk about it, even if you need to,” she says. “There’s shame around losing your independence. But the point of these interventions is to keep people’s independence alive.” People often voice feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, she says. But there are proven solutions. “People’s lives get better when they have these modifications.”

A lot has changed in Jim’s 40 years on the island. He remembers seeing a friend in oncoming traffic on 305 and flicking his lights by way of hello. The two pulled over to shoot the breeze and have a beer, peopling honking and waving as they drove by. “Try that now and you’d go to jail. The traffic is horrendous,” Jim laughs. One thing hasn’t changed, however. Jim lives in the same house he’s lived in for decades, and he has no plans to move. “It’s nothing all that fancy,” he says, “but it’s home to me.”