Living with a disability and aging in place can be challenging enough, but an unexpected need for medical or therapeutic equipment can wreck a limited budget and require some research (and multiple trips) to acquire the needed apparatus.

For the past 12 years, the Loan Closet of Howard County has been the county’s one-stop hub for free resources and donated equipment that helps improve the quality of life of older adults, caregivers, persons with disabilities and others who need such assistance.

In June, the Loan Closet moved from its inadequate space off Route 108 to its new location in Columbia at the Long Reach Village Center, next to Town Deli.

The move enabled the Loan Closet to triple in size to 3,000 square feet and will enable the organization to increase the number of people it serves from 800 per year to a projected 2,500 annually.

Additionally, operating hours were increased from six hours per week to 21 hours per week, with normal business hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the new potential for evening and weekend access.

“We’re already overwhelmed with customers and requests, and that’s with no advertising,” said Mary Becker, the Howard County Office on Aging’s Aging in Place program manager. “Word is getting out, which speaks to the need we’re addressing.”

Pass It On

Frequently, patients who have undergone therapy or require equipment after a hospital visit are left wondering what to do with temporary equipment they no longer need.

It’s a common problem that Becker encountered as an occupational therapist for the Office on Aging. “The county gave us money to help citizens who needed assistance purchasing durables, but wouldn’t allow us to reuse or recycle that equipment,” she said.

The idea to open a loan center gained traction when Becker asked fellow Howard County Rebuilding Together Board Member John Startt if the Rotary Club of Columbia could help.

“We adopted the idea as a project for the Rotary’s centennial celebration in 2005,” said Startt, president of JST Builders, in Clarksville. “Mary had already put together the framework for a loan closet,” which was located in a room at the nonprofit Way Station Outpatient Mental Health Clinic in the Sheppard Pratt at Howard County building.

The Loan Closet relies on a network of volunteers and local organizations. Becker said the organization is also grateful for the exceptional help provided by the individuals in the Way Station’s day program, who help by cleaning the donated equipment and assist in checking it in and out.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman joined Office on Aging Staff in June to officially reopen the Loan Closet at its new location.

“You feel like you’re going into a boutique,” Kittleman said of the new, larger space. “People are probably going through some stressful times, and they come in here and they feel better. That’s part of it, too; `we want to make sure they feel better when they’re getting the services and equipment that they get.”

Serving as a clearinghouse for donated medical equipment, the Loan Closet accepts bathing aids, canes, wheelchairs, modular and portable ramps, motorized scooters, stairway lifts, patient lifts, toilet aids and walkers, to name but a few items.

“We don’t accept hospital beds, oxygen equipment, CPAP monitors and items that can’t easily be sterilized,” Becker said. “We advise patrons to call ahead to check for availability before coming to see us.”

Growing Demand

So far, Becker said, the Loan Closet is keeping up with demand, “although we do occasionally have to pull staff from other programs to help.”

The Office on Aging has begun a six-month assessment process to determine how it will manage demand growth and respond accordingly. “We may have to go after more staff, which is a budget issue, or beef up our volunteer program,” she said.

At the Loan Closet, Allied Health professionals oversee the process, assist patrons and also provide counseling and guidance in terms of products. “Anybody who’s a county resident can use this service,” Becker said, explaining that some turn to the Loan Closet because insurance carriers won’t cover certain items, while in other cases the paperwork process takes longer than the need for equipment.

“In our first year we served 300 to 400 individuals,” Startt said. “This year it was 800 to 1,000, and with the additional hours, we expect to serve 2,000 this year.”

Demand growth is attributed to the fact that more people are finding out about the program and to the effects of publicity surrounding the move, “but we’re also seeing an uptick because another service provider, the Washington Wheelchair Society, went out of business 18 months ago, so some of the displaced customers are coming here,” he said.

Community Support

The loan program may be free, but it does require money to sustain.

“The biggest portion of funding comes from the county itself, and the Rotary Club and other organizations also make charitable donations,” Startt said.

Additionally, patrons themselves often make monetary donations to show their appreciation, he said, as does the business community. “Hamel Builders, of Elkridge, has been very generous, and we are extremely grateful for their support,” Startt said.

Rotary Club members are on call each week to assist with pickups and deliveries for patrons and donors who are incapacitated or have legitimate reasons for not being able to visit the Loan Closet in person.

“We like the opportunity to have direct contact with the people we’re there to provide for,” Startt said. “That’s a really important aspect for our Rotary Club.”

And as Office on Aging Administrator Starr Sowers noted during the Loan Closet’s reopening ceremony, “Recycle, reuse and repurpose … are three strong words that truly describe the service we are providing to Howard County residents. It is truly a win-win for everybody involved.”

Ultimately, said Becker, the Loan Closet exists to focus on the patron, not the product.

“It’s never about a piece of equipment,” she said. “It’s all about creating information and resources to help all of our citizens remain vibrant and remain a part of our community.”