On a cool December morning, University of Portland nursing students Olivia Spitzer and Venetia Prontzos conducted their weekly blood pressure checks for residents at the Vancouver Housing Authority’s Columbia House, a low-income senior apartment complex.
As residents filtered in, Spitzer and Prontzos both wondered: “Where’s Billy?”
Columbia House resident Billy Davidson normally shows up every Thursday at 9 a.m. on the dot. But as the clock ticked past 10, he still hadn’t arrived. Finally, he walked into the ninth-floor community room and announced, “I wasn’t here at 9 because I had to go pay the rent.”
The students greeted him warmly as he sat down for his blood pressure check, an important task for the 78-year-old man. “All males on my side of the family, they all passed away with high blood pressure,” Davidson said. “They died of the first stroke they had.”
Prontzos took his blood pressure. All was good. But Davidson’s precautions speak to the necessity of offering health services in low-income and senior housing complexes — services that help keep some of the county’s most vulnerable residents safely in their homes.
Stephanie Finch, the housing authority’s aging and disabled service coordinator, noted there are several barriers Columbia House residents face when it comes to accessing medical care.
“Income is a huge barrier,” Finch said. “Lack of support is another one that I see. We have quite a few residents here that don’t necessarily have families that they are in contact with or that live close by to provide support such as transportation.”
Housing and health
To meet the health needs of Vancouver’s low-income residents, eight University of Portland nursing students worked at various Vancouver Housing Authority properties during the fall academic semester, which ended in December. In addition to blood pressure checks, Spitzer and Prontzos provided residents with oxygen checks and diet advice, and even helped organize a flu vaccine clinic.
As the students are learning in school, housing and health often go hand-in-hand. Housing is regarded by the medical community as a “social determinant of health,” meaning that where people live affects their well-being and quality of life.
“There’s a hierarchy of needs, and having a roof over your head is one of the most basic levels that you need,” Prontzos said. “If you have the added stressor of finding that, then you can’t focus on other things like medical care.”
The way a community is structured affects people’s health, as well. Spitzer pointed out that for Columbia House residents, transportation is often an impediment to getting places like doctor’s appointments and grocery stores.
Jerrol Stanley, a 69-year-old resident, has struggled to get to appointments using public transportation. “One of my doctors was clear out on 132nd and Mill Plain,” he said. “Three buses to get out there, and four to get back sometimes.”
For this reason, having nursing students provide services in his apartment building was helpful, Stanley said.
Access to healthy food is another factor that housing developers and service providers should keep in mind, Spitzer noted.
“Luckily there are quite a few different grocery stores within a mile of the Columbia House, but still, a good portion of these residents have a physical disability,” Spitzer said. “They might not necessarily be able to walk that far, as well as carrying groceries and everything. There is a shopping shuttle, but that only comes twice every month.”
The shuttle schedule also limits the time people have to buy groceries, Prontzos added. “It gives them like 45 minutes to an hour,” she said. “I’ve heard from several residents that they don’t have enough time to shop.”
As far as low-income senior apartment complexes go, Prontzos thinks the Columbia House does a good job of supporting residents’ health needs. “But I think there’s always room for improvement,” she said.
Although the students’ semester has ended, Finch continues helping residents stay housed and connected to community services.
“We’ve had a lot of success with residents saying, ‘You know what, thank you for reaching out,’ ” Finch said. “All the service coordinators, all the staff at Columbia House, are working as hard as we can to keep people here for as long as we can.”
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