It was Sept. 11, 2009, and my 80-year old father and I were shopping at the Walmart in Biddeford when he grabbed onto one of the columns and fell forcefully straight backwards, cracking his head on the concrete floor.

All I could do was watch him fall in slow motion, too shocked and frozen to think about trying to break his fall.

Once he had landed on the floor, I screamed for help, asking someone to call 9-1-1.

The ambulance and its team rushed him to the hospital, where after a few weeks doctors put in a pacemaker to help with a heart problem that had caused him to pass out in the first place. My father had suffered a concussion, and he needed months of recovery.

My father lives in congregate senior housing at the Pines in Ocean Park, where there are services right on the premises such as a social worker, administrator, maintenance people, group meals if desired, a cord located in the bathroom to pull in case of an emergency and other amenities.

The Pines is a cooperative housing venture between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the American Baptist Churches. There were also visiting nurses and therapists who came to his apartment while he was recovering from the vertigo received from the concussion.

He was also fortunate to have all three of his children living nearby and helpful neighbors, who could drive and run errands when he couldn’t. Nearly two years following his fall, he is almost completely healed and enjoys a daily 2-mile walk down to the ocean.

My father’s story wouldn’t have had such a happy ending 30 or 40 years ago.

Today, because of advances in medical technology and creative ways to help people remain independent, people rarely move from the homes they’ve lived in for 50 years or more to the nursing home. There are many options available to seniors who can live safely in their own apartments or housing, giving their grown-up children peace of mind and fewer gray hairs. There are also options for seniors who need help with household chores, dressing, bathing and other activities of daily living.

Often the first step in helping elderly parents is getting them “Meals on Wheels.” It is a simple thing to do but can provide independence.

“We get calls quite often,” said Connie Jones, director of Community Service for Seniors Plus, an agency on aging that serves Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, “from a concerned son or daughter who says, ‘Mom leaves the burner on and we are worried,’ One of the first things that can happen to help is to get someone Meals on Wheels. Income isn’t an issue when someone has difficulty preparing their own meals.”

Jones also said that church groups, neighbors or friends can help with such things as snow shoveling and houshold chores.

“I am amazed at the number of churches that are doing things to help people,” she said. “People can go from church to church for different meals where people can meet their neighbors. People are starting to realize that community is really important and people need to build support systems. I see a resurgence of the sense of community beginning to happen”

There are other options, too.

Home Instead Senior Care, with 900 offices in 16 countries including offices in Gorham and Kennebunk, began in 1994 in Omaha, Neb. Each office is a franchise and is independently owned. The amount of care for seniors varies from just a few hours a week to 24/7 coverage. The cost for services ranges from $22 to $26 an hour, depending on the level of care. Cost for a senior companion during the evening hours can be less if the caregiver is allowed to sleep and be available just in case help is needed.

“There is definitely a need for this,” said William Jenks, president of the Home Instead Senior Care office in Gorham. “The fastest growing section of the population are those people who are over the age of 85 years old. There are a lot of people who are living longer than they used to.

“The baby boomers are the main consumers of our services because they have parents now that are living well into their 90s because of medical technology. There has been such an emphasis on longevity but there also needs to be an emphasis on the quality of life.”

Home Instead Senior Care supplies its clients with a wealth of information for caregivers covering issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, caregiver stress, living with an elderly parent, family conflict and resolution issues, and a medication list and schedule.

Medicare does not cover the services offered by Home Instead because it is not a medical service. Medicare — generally speaking and each case is different — covers rehabilitation in a nursing home following hospitalization.

It does not cover long-term care in a nursing home. Nursing home care can cost around $60,000 a year or more. If a person has purchased Long Term Care Insurance, in most cases, nursing home care would be covered. Mainecare will pay for nursing home care, but a person’s assets need to be almost depleted.

Before looking into any type of elderly care assistance, a person should explore all the options and find out what is covered under Medicare, Mainecare or private insurance. This should be done many years before a person plans on retiring and people should be prepared financially and emotionally for an unexpected illness.

Many elderly housing complexes (such as the Pines in Ocean Park) are subsidized with rent based on a person’s income, such as Social Security or pensions. There are also private retirement communities that are limited to people ages 55 and older depending on the community.

In addition, there are continuing care retirement communities, where a person can start off living independently and as their needs increase, have services such as meals, housekeeping, nursing care and other services. In the same complex, there will often be an assisted living facility as well as a nursing home to meet the changing needs of the resident.

“Overall, it is much less expensive for a person to be able to live in their own home as long as possible,” Jones said. “Unless you’ve bought long term care insurance — which covers the cost of a nursing home — a person can go through their life’s savings in a very short period of time.”

Usually, if a husband or wife needs to go into a nursing home and qualifies for Mainecare, the healthy spouse can remain in the family home.

“We have clients in independent living facilities, assisted living and even in skilled nursing facilities,” said Jenks. “We’ve done surveys and 85 to 97 percent of seniors want to remain in their own homes as long as possible. Our service makes it possible for people to do just that.”  

Cathy Genthner is a freelance writer who lives in Gorham.