COLUMBUS — Norwich Township Fire Chief Jeff Warren was happy to be wrong. He thought the number of people enrolled in his fire department’s collaborative program with National Church Residences was around 100.
Actually, it’s already grown to 120. Not far off, but he still underestimated it, which meant more people were getting help than he figured.
“That’s just amazing,” Warren said with a smile Thursday as he stood in the bay of Station 81.
The program, now one of three in Franklin County, seeks to fill a gap in the health-care system for seniors by connecting them with services available in their community to help them age in place — such as installing grab bars in homes or helping them understand their prescription schedule.
Upper Arlington was the first to launch, starting STAY UA in 2009. Norwich Township, which also serves Hilliard, started its partnership with NCR in December, and Westerville did so in February. In total, the three programs have helped more than 1,000 central Ohio seniors.
The innovative partnerships are rooted in the idea of playing off your strengths to solve a problem, Warren said.
In this case, fire departments deal daily with seniors who reach out to them for a variety of needs outside of emergency medical services. NCR, as the largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing, knows how or where to go to solve many of senior’s problems.
“Oftentimes people know there’s an emergency happening or they’re in a crisis, and they don’t know who to call but to call 911,” said Heith Good, a paramedic who oversees Norwich Township’s program, called Focus Hilliard.
But after arriving and evaluating the situation, “We find out it’s not a hospital issue,” Good said. “It’s a resource issue.”
NCR provides the fire departments with a service coordinator, who works out of the fire station and leads the efforts to solve seniors’ issues.
Those problems are wide-ranging, said Christine Leyshon, service coordinator for Focus Hilliard. She also supervises Westerville’s program and has worked with STAY UA since 2012.
Leyshon said issues can involve anything from prescription assistance, discharge instructions after being released from a hospital, questions about health insurance or a lack of transportation to a doctor visit.
Since many residents place trust in the fire department and turn to it when they need help, EMS personnel are uniquely positioned to identify “the frailest members of the community,” Leyshon said.
She and other service coordinators from NCR then step in, managing each resident’s case on a daily basis to ensure they have their needs addressed.
In the nine years that STAY UA has been operating, about 1,000 residents have been helped, Leyshon said. Since Westerville launched its program, 70 residents have been enrolled. Then there are the 120 residents currently enrolled in Focus Hilliard.
Good said the Norwich Township Fire Department started trying to connect seniors with community resources almost three years ago, inspired by Stay UA. But since Leyshon joined the team in December, the department now knows all the services available to help older adults.
Mike Bushong, 62, of Hilliard, said the program has been “a total package” in solving his wide-ranging problems. Last year, Bushong broke his left leg twice after falling and was later diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition that causes narrowing of the spinal canal and puts pressure on nerves, causing pain, numbness and a loss of reflexes.
The former maintenance technician, who has been on disability since February 2017, has limited use of the right side of his body, making the most-routine tasks difficult.
Before he was enrolled in Focus Hilliard, he said he tried to find community groups who could help him but “it seemed like everything fell through,” whether it was because he made too much money to qualify for programs or because he wasn’t old enough.
“Then Christine called and everything fell into place,” he said.
He has since been enrolled in Meals on Wheels, had grab bars installed throughout his house to prevent falls and has someone come every two weeks to clean. Leyshon also frequently offers to make sure he’s OK, he said, and visits to conduct wellness checkups.
“They’ve been so good to me,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”