No Place Like Home

Home Modifications and Renovations

For People with Disabilities or

other Long-term Care Needs

Harry van Bommel

Resources Supporting Family and Community Legacies Inc.

Scarborough, Ontario

2003, 2006

© 2003, 2006 by Harry van Bommel

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

This book is also available for free reading and printing from our web site at:

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

van Bommel, Harry

No place like home [electronic resource]: home modifications and

Renovations for people with disabilities or other long-term care needs/

Harry van Bommel

Includes bibliographic references.

ISBN 1-55307-011-9

Dwellings – Barrier-free design. 2. People with disabilities—

Dwellings. 3. Dwellings—Remodeling. I. Resources Supporting

Family and Community Legacies Inc. II. Title.

TH4816.15.V35 2003643’.7C2003-904275-8

To contact the author, write or call:

Resources Supporting Family and Community Legacies Inc.

11 Miniot Circle

Scarborough, Ontario

M1K 2K1


(416) 264-4665


This book is an information guide – not an instruction manual. The book does not, nor is it intended to offer legal, tax or construction advice. Use it to ask the appropriately qualified people the right questions that fit your specific situation. Resources Supporting Family and Community Legacies Inc., its agents and employees assume no responsibility for errors or omissions or for damages arising from the use of this published information and suggestions. You must consult with your own professional advisors to decide what is best for your own modifications and/or renovations.

Chapter 9 on Regular Home Maintenance includes checklists from David Caldwell’s 1996 book Renovating your own home: A step-by-step guide. We are grateful to David for his permission to reproduce these checklists for you.

Dedicated to Janet Klees who walks this road with me, side by side, hand in hand and to our friends who share in the experiences with so much support, love, understanding and encouragement.

In memory of Willy van Bommel – farmer (who understood ‘barn raisers’), bricklayer, family historian and uncle. He was a gift to all of us who knew him.

In honor of Joseph Feldman and Beatrice Mandel whose friendship and life experiences inspire us.

In thanks to Joanna and Bram who teach us everyday what it means to live life fully.

Read this First

You do not have to be an expert contractor or carpenter to have your home modified or renovated. This book is designed to give you some basic information to help you choose and work with a contractor. The contractor may know most of the information to meet your specific needs but they may not know it all. Use this book to ask the contractor the questions you need answered to meet your specific circumstances.

This book is an information guide – not an instruction manual. The book does not, nor is it intended to offer legal, tax or construction advice. Use it to ask the appropriately qualified people the right questions that fit your specific situation. Resources Supporting Family and Community Legacies Inc., its agents and employees assume no responsibility for errors or omissions or for damages arising from the use of this published information and suggestions. You must consult with your own professional advisors to decide what is best for your own modifications and/or renovations.

Do your homework to save you, and the people who must follow your directions, as much frustration and time as possible. Spend at least as much time planning, deciding and moving ahead with your modifications or renovations as you would in buying a new home. If you make mistakes early on or do not think about critical aspects of the renovation until later on, the costs in time, labour and money could be very high. Something as simple as where to put the electrical plug for charging a wheelchair battery can mean that difference between having it next to the person’s bed (easy access) or across the room where someone will have to assist the person to get into the chair. To change the plug later on, closer to the person’s bed, may mean several hours of labor and patching up drywall (and painting again) in two places. Time is money in home modifications and renovations. Spend the time before hand to save actual construction time. As well, wise decisions may enhance the value of the home for resale purposes down the road while unwise decisions may decrease the value of the home and/or make it difficult to sell.

Examples are provided for illustration only. The costs were accurate at the time of the projects (1999-2002).

How to Use This Book

Do a quick overview of the contents. Where you are in the planning or construction of your project will tell you what content is most useful now.

Ask the key people working on this project with you to read, or skim, through the book. The more of you who understand what is happening during the planning and construction work, the better.

If you are planning a major renovation and plan to get help from family, friends, neighbors and volunteers, then ask someone to coordinate parts of the project for you. This person can. reduce some of the typical pressures (e.g., coordinating the work schedule, answering questions, getting help with lunch and supper meals for workers). This leaves time for the person and family to remain focused on the day-to-day activities. The coordinator is usually not the person with long-term care needs or their immediate family or caregivers. The person and family remain in charge but do not have to deal with every detail.

Keep this book with all of your other project’s files and materials (e.g., building permits, drawings, contact sheets). Go back to the book at various stages of the project to remind yourself of details that may be helpful.

Pass the book on to someone else when you are done with it so they can learn from it too. Also let people know that the book is available for free reading and printing off the web site:

Please write to us with suggestions on how we can improve the book for other readers. We will update the book on our web site to be as current and useful as possible.

Consider helping other families with their modifications and renovations after you are finished with yours. You may not be an expert but you can certainly help with parts of their project using your own experiences as a guide. Sometimes just having someone who has gone through the same type of renovation recently will help make people feel more in control of the work and more comfortable with all the changes to their routines.


We are immensely grateful to Diane Huson, Peg Jenner and Deb Thivierge, Board Members of Legacies Inc. during this pilot project. They provided support, encouragement, and insights through the roller coaster ride that is part of not-for-profit community development projects.

Janet Klees, Co-Executive Director of Legacies provided extraordinary support during the rough patches. Her insights into the needs of people with disabilities and long-term care needs sensitized us in ways that had a profound impact on our work. Without her, none of this could have happened.

We are very thankful to the individuals and families who let us into their homes to work with them to achieve their dreams. We learned a great deal together and it was wonderful.

Without the volunteers, we could not have achieved and learned what we have in such a short time. They provided time, thoughtfulness and genuine effort into helping individuals and families realize their dreams of having safe, comfortable and accessible homes.

Our special thanks to Alvin and Anne Isenberg and Victor Gascon, Mike Mathieson and the extended Mathieson family who all contributed funds that helped us during this initial 3-year pilot project. We are very grateful for their thoughtfulness and generosity:

The following people reviewed drafts of this book. Their various perspectives added immeasurably to the final content of this book. I am very thankful for the many hours they put into ensuring that this book could be as helpful as possible to the readers.

Vici Clarke has worked in the fields of disability and community building for many years. She is also a family member who is helping her family look at alternatives in renovating their own home to accommodate two members with disabilities. Her perspective as a reader who will use the content of this book was invaluable.

Bill Huson is a contractor who understands both the needs of the homeowner but also the long-term consequences of any home modifications and renovations. He is compulsive in meeting building code regulations while ensuring a comfortable and safe home for the owners.

Diane Huson is an artist with an eye for detail and what a finished renovation can, and should, look like. She is also co-owner of a small renovation business and understands the needs of individuals with disabilities and their families.

Janet Klees is Co-Executive Director of Legacies Inc., an author in her own field as well as the principle editor of all of my books. She combines her expertise in the fields of community development and working with individuals labeled with having a disability to make sure that the content of this book is as helpful as it can be.

Deb Thivierge is an author and editor with a background in education and management within social services, health care and government.

Susan Ward is an occupational therapy professional whose expertise in this field ensured that we did not miss important aspects of home modifications and renovations as it relates to the accommodation of people with disabilities and other long-term care needs.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this book are those of the author.


Many people with disabilities or long-term care needs do not know what kind of modifications or renovations their homes need, nor how to get the work done. They suffer needlessly because they lack practical and useful information, which often means they do without these changes to their home at a cost to their safety and comfort.

We at Resources Supporting Family and Community Legacies Inc wanted to help fill that information void with practical, ‘how to’ information that would make modifications and renovations happen but would also broaden a person’s natural network of supports.

We travel so much in our lives now and our extended family often lives thousands of miles away. For example, your parents may live in another part of the country and you may not be there to help them when they need it. Just as true, there are families thousands of miles away with a loved one living in your neighborhood. You may not be able to help your own family so far away but you can help a neighbor and relieve some of the anxiety of their family equally far away. You can encourage this same kind of community spirit in the community where your parents live.

We developed the idea of adapting the traditional ‘barn raising’ methods to meet the needs of  people who had difficulty getting into and around their home safely and comfortably. We thought people should not have to struggle to live in their own home or return home from a long-term care facility.

The idea is a simple one: you help me now and I may help you or someone else later. Or vice versa. Communities have been built on this neighborly model for generations. We think we need to get back to helping each other more.

During our three-year pilot project we learned a great deal about home modifications and renovations. We worked on 94 projects for 28 different families with a total market value of over $900,000. The cost to families averaged about 23% of the market value so they saved an average of over 75% on the cost of their modifications and renovations. For small modifications there were often no charges at all.

We started with one family and gradually expanded to help several families at a time during the three years. We wanted to work on a wide variety of projects to see what the limits might be. The accumulated knowledge is presented in this book. It is not all the information you will need but a good start in deciding what needs to be done, how to get the work done to your satisfaction and how to ask for help during the various parts of the project.

Our three-year pilot project was designed around one person coordinating the work for individuals and families. Over time we discovered that a better model would be to provide individuals and families with the basic information and let them coordinate the work. In this way, rather than us making the contacts and recruiting volunteers, the individuals and families would be doing this to the point where their own network expanded with longer-term benefits for everyone involved. If someone helps with a construction project now, they may well help again later or you may help them when they need it.

The book is not a “how-to” for home renovations in the typical sense. There are excellent books at your book store and library on general home renovations (see Resources section at end of book). This book is specifically for modifying and renovating a home to make it more accessible, safe and comfortable for people with a disability or other long-term care needs. The book is designed for those who want to use a “barn-raising” approach to modifcations and renovations so that materials are donated or reduced in price and much of the work is done by friends, family, neighbors and volunteers.

There are five main groups of people who may use this book:

  1. 1.individuals with disabilities or long-term care needs

  2. 2.their family, friends, neighbors, volunteers

  3. interested in working on their projects

  4. 4.their community

  5. 5.charitable organizations who want to help

To individuals who have long-term care needs, we hope this book provides you with enough alternatives to look at your home differently. Some of the ideas in the book may help you see how your home can be modified and/or renovated to meet your needs while also being a comfortable, safe place to live. You may take the leading role in designing what is needed and coordinating the project or asking others to share the work with you. The book provides various scenarios so that you can pick and choose what might work best for you. This book may also lead you to conclude that it would be easier and/or cheaper to sell your home and buy one that is either suited to your needs or can be more easily modified or renovated.

Our principle recommendations are that you:

  1. Bulletexpect disagreements with loved ones about what to do, how to do it, when to do it and for what costs – you will need to invest extra time in working out these disagreements as early in the process as possible as your relationships will always be more important than your home

  2. Bulletexpect major disruptions in your life while any major renovations are done,

  3. Bulletexpect things may go wrong and not according to plan

  4. Bullethave a wide enough support circle of family and friends to help with the frustrating parts

  5. Bulletmake decisions and have the work done so you feel it was all worth it in the end when you have the home you wished for at the start  – it may not be exactly what you wanted but it must meet most of your needs

  6. Bulletalmost anyone you talk to about major renovations has “horror” stories. It is almost expected. Knowing that will help you prepare yourself physically and mentally for the tasks ahead which should result in a more accessible, safe and comfortable home.

To family, friends, neighbors and volunteers who have decided to help with this project, please remember how disruptive the process can be to everyday life and plan for it. The person with the long-term care needs, if they are home at the time of the project, will need extra supports. Plan for these. If they share the responsibilities for planning and coordinating the project, remember that they and the immediate family that may live with them, have to live with the consequences of whatever work you do. Most of you can leave when the work is over but they will likely stay in this home for a very long time. This means that the work must be done for the long-term and done to a higher level of quality and durability than normal – they do not want to go through all of this again in 5-10 years.

To the contractor this is a job that may be immensely rewarding as you are literally changing people’s lives for the better. This will require some extra effort and more detailed planning than typical modifications and renovations. You may even develop such a joy for this work that you end up, if you have not already, specializing in it. During our pilot project we saw smiles that beamed across a room showing that what was done was worth it. While many people renovate their home for increased comfort and resaleability, your work is probably going to last this person and their immediate family for decades. You have a rare opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life and we know that feels great.

To the community surrounding the person with long-term care needs and their immediate family, this ‘barn raising’ project is a wonderful opportunity to get to know a neighbor and to network with other neighbors in a common goal. One day when you need some help around your home you will already know a group of people who can likely help. People crave a sense of community in our modern world and what better way to build such a community than around a short-term, yet dramatic, project like renovating a neighbor’s home to increase their accessibility, mobility, comfort and safety.

To charitable organizations, there are two ways you can help: (1) issuing charitable income tax receipts to individuals and organizations so you transfer the donated funds to the specific home renovation project you have agreed to sponsor, and (2) expand your service to include doing such projects yourselves. Whichever way you to choose to help, understand that you are making a profound commitment to someone with disabilities or other long-term care needs. Each project involves the hopes, dreams and fears of a vulnerable person. If they are left stranded because an organization is not prepared to follow through to the end of the project, there exists a real possibility that the person cannot remain or return home. This would be tragic for the individual, their family and the community you share. These projects are incredible community development opportunities which may lead to greater donor  and volunteer recruitment. Home modification and renovation projects are ideal community development projects that benefit everyone involved.

Language and Jargon

A book about modifications and renovations has to have some ‘jargon’ that people in the building trades use. The jargon is important to understand if you want to ensure that you and your contractors, suppliers and volunteers are speaking about the same things. It is just the same as when you learn the jargon to buy a home (e.g., mortgage, deed, conditional sale) or when getting medical help (e.g., oncologist, hypertension, cholesterol). Ask your contractor to help you truly understand the terms in this book (and glossary) and their importance in your project.

We use the term barn raising to give an image of the community spirit that sees family, friends and neighbors coming together to modify or renovate a home. A group of people come together to build a barn or home quickly and effectively. In farming communities today you may still see over a hundred men, women and children working on the actual construction and helping with meals, move materials to the correct spot, help hand out cold drinks and more. These barn raisings happen after a fire burns down the old barn or when a son or daughter starts their own farm. People help each other knowing that one day that help will be available to them too. Habitat for Humanity does similar work by building homes in a short time using hundreds of volunteers so that low-income families can own a new home.

A contractor is a professional construction expert. They will likely work on their own or with their own employees and they may coordinate sub-contractors to do some of the work. Some may work with volunteers but many will be off site when volunteers work, for liability reasons. Contractors may be involved in the ordering, buying and delivery of materials for your project or may leave that for you to do.

The word disability is used throughout this book to refer to a person who has a developmental and/or physical condition or impairment that requires them to modify or renovate their home so they can continue to live there safely and comfortably, or return home from an institution.

Family refers to someone’s own biological family as well as to their close friends whom the person includes within their family.

A person with long-term care needs can either be someone who has disabilities or someone who has a long-term medical condition. For example, it may be someone recovering from a stroke or heart attack, someone with lung disease who has difficulty getting around the home or someone who is very ill and wants to live at home until they die.

Modifications to a home are relatively small but very important in meeting a person’s needs. These include installing grab bars in bathrooms and bedrooms; widening door ways; lowering light switches or adding remote controls for lights, stereos, and computers; or adding a porch wheelchair lift or a wheelchair ramp.

Renovations are large, often time consuming construction projects that will change the day-to-day activities at home. These include changing or adding a bathroom or kitchen, adding an elevator, building a self-contained apartment in the basement, or building an addition.

Legal Issues

This chapter is intended to provide general information. This chapter does not replace legal advice.


If anyone is being paid to do any work on your home, they must carry commercial liability insurance. Your only responsibility is to ask them if they are insured. They are liable for injuries to themselves or to anyone they have directly harmed on site as well as any damage they may do to your home. The homeowner is covered under their own liability insurance if they work alongside the contractor.

Everything that volunteers, including family members, do on the property is covered by the home owner’s insurance policy because they are invited guests. It is important that the home owner is carrying insurance before any work is done by volunteers. This is entirely up to the home owner. If they do not have insurance and a volunteer gets hurt, the volunteer could sue the home owner and they could lose their house. If the house is mortgaged, it must have some insurance on it to satisfy the lender/bank.

Most home owners have friends help them move, paint the house, fix some plumbing, etc. They are all covered by the home owner’s insurance just as people who are ‘transient’ on the property for a purpose, e.g., postal workers, utility inspectors and newspaper delivery people.

If volunteers pick up building materials or do things away from the property but for the project, they are covered under various other insurance policies. For example, if something happens to them in a store, it is the store’s policy that covers them. If they are in a car accident while picking up supplies for the project, it is their own, and the other drivers involved, insurance policies that cover them. Volunteers are not covered under a home owner’s policy if they are doing things away from that home. Like all house guests, they are covered under their own policies or those of a store.

Check with your own insurance agent about the home owner’s insurance policy for any liabilities during a construction project.


The home owner’s insurance covers any negligence on behalf of the home owner but negligence usually infers something could have been done to avoid the injury. “What a reasonable and prudent person would often do” is the test. If negligence is found, the liability is likely higher and the insurance company still covers the negligence.

There are risks on a construction site and volunteers understand that risk. There is no point in getting people to sign waivers since one cannot waive against negligence and all other injuries are also covered by insurance. The reason we carry home insurance is just for these kinds of situations.

It may help you to know that during our three-year pilot project we had thousands of hours of work done by hundreds of people with only a few minor cuts, scratches from nails and bruises. There were no injuries required medical attention during this time.

Use common sense. Some safeguards to keep in mind:

Do not let minors operate power tools particularly circular saws, chop saws, etc. Screw guns are usually fine when the children are directly supervised.

Whenever allowing adults to use a power tool, ask them if they have used it before and if they understand how it could hurt them. If the tool is new to them, ensure that someone shows them how to use it safely.

When building or demolishing parts of the home, do prudent things to minimize dangers. For example, put up rails or boards to protect people from falling.

Strongly encourage the use of all safety equipment including safety boots and glasses.

By reducing risks and ensuring that people know how to use a tool, you are sharing the liability.

Have a first aid kit handy and the location and telephone number of a drop-in clinic by the telephone. Remember to dial 911 in emergencies. If someone get hurts, get them whatever medical care they need as you would with any guest. Insist they get all the care they need, even if they do not want it.

Electrical work, particularly involving the main circuit panel, must only be done by a qualified, licensed and insured electrical contractor.

Plumbing work should be done by qualified people but it does not have to be someone who is necessarily licensed. If there is a mistake there may be some damage but not deadly results like main electrical panel work.

Work on foundation or bearing walls that are at risk of falling down should be done by qualified professionals.

Volunteers should be used at the level of skills they possess or are willing to learn. Framing, drywall, demolition, painting, flooring, doors and trim work, and moving materials (sand, gravel, drywall, etc.) must all be done based on their skill or comfort level. Even people with minimal skills can work along side someone with experience. Minor electrical and plumbing work can also be done this way.

If you are digging outside your home, get your local cable companies to come out (usually a free service) to tell you where their cables are buried. Do this several weeks before the digging is to start. Notify the following companies: hydro, gas, telephone, television-computer cable company, water department and other underground cable companies.

Permits, Bylaws and Building Codes

Permits are the responsibility of the home owner and/or paid contractor. In most cases, if a contractor is hired, they will recommend whether a permit is necessary depending on the work that is being done. As a general rule, most municipalities require a permit any time a structural change is being made to a property and any time plumbing or electrical modifications are being done. A plumbing modification is the movement of plumbing pipes but does not include changing an old tub, sink or handles.

The same rule applies for electrical work. You do not need a permit for changing the actual switches or light fixtures but you do if you are moving their location.

To be sure of the rules in your municipality, ask the Permits Department before any work is done. The permit includes an inspector coming to verify that the work is done well at various stages (framing, electrical, plumbing, insulation and final inspection). This is a great benefit for a small cost. The inspector ensures that the contractor and volunteers are doing the jobs right so that you can be sure of high quality and long-term safety. The inspection process also minimizes liability issues in the future if there is any question of how the work was done.

We certainly recommend that you get a permit whenever electrical work is done (usually through your local utility) and whenever major plumbing work/modifications are being done (usually through your municipal building office). You could void your home owner’s policy if you do not get these permits. For example, if your home is damaged because of electrical or water damage and you did not have permits for the work, your insurance policy may not cover you.

The logic is clear. You do not need a permit to put in a new bathroom door or put up drywall because if your door does not swing properly or if drywall screws pop out, these inconveniences will not damage the rest of your house or injure anyone. If something happens with the structure of your home, or your electrical and plumbing systems, the results may be serious to the rest of your home and to the safety of your family. That is what the permits are meant to prevent. Also by following the building code you have the added benefit of a safer home, lower heating bills (better insulated home) and the relief that comes from knowing the job is done right. Lastly, the permit is proof to future buyers that the job was done right.

Even when you work with the best contractor, inspectors double check the work for your safety. They are well worth the price. For example, the permit and inspections to add a partial second story and enclosed front porch to a bungalow (710 square feet) was just over $1.25 per square foot.

That said, you must also know that getting a permit could result in an increase in your property value, and therefore, property tax. Property tax is based on the size of frontage of your lot, the actual lot size and square footage of the house and garage plus special features such as skylights, special roof finishes, whirlpool or hot tubs, deck size, tiled floors and fireplaces.

When you renovate internally, no one gets to see what you are doing, especially if you do it on your own. There is not as high a requirement for a building permit if you do not make structural changes. Therefore you will not have to notify the municipality of renovations such as changing a bathtub into a roll-in shower. These changes will, therefore, not lead to an increase in property taxes.

Outside, if you are building a wheelchair ramp, stairs or deck off the ground it usually requires a permit. Landscaping does not. If you are building a ramp of inter-locking stone on a raised bed of fill, a permit may not be required. Again, check your local municipality before you start work. Be careful not to break local rules by having any of these structures come onto city property or near the property line. The rules vary by municipality.

You may need to get a ‘variance’ to encroach on the lot line or city property. For example, a ramp may need to be further from the lot line to meet building code. You apply for a variance and your neighbors have an opportunity to express any concerns. This same law protects your property value when your neighbors want to do something to their home or property.

You should expect that there will always be follow-up work needed after renovations are done because of sticky doors, faulty trims or door handles, paint chipping, etc. These are annoyances but not dangerous to your family.

Working with a Charitable Organization

Large renovation projects can cost a lot of money for materials and labor. It may help to work with a local charitable organization. The charity can offer manufacturers and suppliers a charitable donation receipt for income tax purposes. The group donates the materials to the charity which in turn, provides them to you. In this way the charity expands its outreach without major expense and you benefit from donated or reduced cost materials.

Note: charitable tax receipts cannot be offered for labor.

The charity may also be willing to provide some volunteers to help with the project. These volunteers may come from the charity’s own pool of volunteers but may also include staff who want to help out after work or on a weekend.

Check with family, friends and community contacts to see if there is a charity willing to sponsor the home renovation. It could be the local faith community, community groups such as Rotary or Knights of Columbus, or associations.

Large donors of materials often do not require charitable tax receipt because either they have their own charitable foundation through which they make donations of materials or money; or they list their donation as a marketing or other business expense (100% write-off). They often will ask for a charitable tax number, however, as a way of legitimizing your request. They assume that if the charity has determined that what you are asking for is appropriate, then their donation is also appropriate.

Charitable tax receipts can be given to anyone, including family, friends, neighbors or colleagues, who wishes to donate financially to the project to help cover some of the costs. This expands the charity’s donor pool which will reflect well on the charity in its Annual Report to its membership.

Using a Support Circle for the Project

Many families that have a loved one who has a disability have heard of “support circles” as one way to provide ongoing support. These circles are a group of interested people who come together regularly (e.g., monthly, quarterly) to discuss ways they can be helpful now and in the future.

For example, a support circle may include a person’s immediate and extended family, a few friends, neighbors and colleagues from work. They may discuss how to help the person go on vacation, how to include the person in other community activities, how to help the person find work, and more. The members of such a circle may start off with the intent of being helpful to the person with a disability, but over time they find out that the relationship is more mutual. We all have gifts to share and support circles are one place for people to identify and use those gifts. Furthermore, although the group originally met around one person, the members end up being helpful to each other as well. At that point, the circle becomes what traditional communities were all about – helping each other when needs arose.

Here are some tips on how a support circle might work if you have a large renovation project. They are not in any specific order. You might use some or all of the following ideas to develop a support circle for your renovation project. Take only those ideas that apply to you and change or add ideas that meet the specific needs of the project.

Remember that a support circle is only effective when the person with the long-term care needs agrees with the idea and participates in making decisions. Keep in mind that the support circle can be used in many different ways. It can also be used for someone who has a chronic illness; for someone (old or young) living at home alone and needing extra help to stay in their own home; for a parent who wants some time away from the children once or twice a week; and for people who want to increase their circle of friends. In other words, support circles are not just for renovation projects -- do not be limited by the ideas presented here. In fact, many circles are not “for” any specific purpose, but rather are a way to making sure that the person has a good life.

I use the word friends to include family members and friends who do not live with the person, as well as volunteers who over time will probably become friends of the person.

It helps to have one or two friends act as the coordinator(s) of the support circle. This person is generally not the person with the long-term care needs nor any person living with them. The coordinator is responsible for organizing everyone’s schedule based on what people have agreed to do. Freeing this responsibility from the person or their immediate family allows them to concentrate on the typical day-to-day details of their lives.

How do you recruit enough people? Janet Klees, Co-Executive Director of Legacies and a person who works with support circles suggests starting off with a pot-luck supper or evening social event to bring people together. The coordinator will collect the names from the person and their family and friends of those likely to want to be involved, at least in an initial meeting to talk about the project. No one needs to commit to anything before the meeting other than to attend and brainstorm ideas. It will be easier for people on the list to say “no” to the request to the coordinator than to the person or their family, which is why the coordinator should make the calls.

People can be recruited from the family, friends and work colleagues who live in the area; people from clubs and organizations that the person belongs to (e.g., service clubs, volunteer work, veterans groups), and where the person worships. Another group that is often overlooked is neighbors. Neighbors are often willing to do something specific like help doing some painting or bringing over food for volunteers or helping run errands, or cleaning up outside during construction. Friends, family and neighbors may also help with basic child care to free up others who want to do the actual construction work. In our experience, the more specific and time-limited the request, the more likely someone will say, “Oh sure. I can do that.”

You may recruit other volunteers through local businesses, labor groups and unions, hardware store’s staff, construction companies and smaller contractors, the Legion, seniors groups, corporations who have volunteer teams (they use the work as a team-building exercise), charitable and not-for-profit programs, do-it-yourself workshop groups, and volunteer centers.

The number of people you need in the circle depends on the size of the project and whether you might like to keep the circle going after the project is done. For larger projects that will take weeks or months, a few dedicated volunteers plus a larger group who can contribute a few hours or days of work seems best. The dedicated volunteers ensure continuity between parts of the job while short-term volunteers may have skills needed for only a short time.

By the end of that first meal or evening social, people may commit to be part of the actual construction project or they may have ideas of who might be very helpful. For example, a neighbor may not feel comfortable doing any of the construction but their brother-in-law or friend may be a trades person who occasionally helps out on projects like this. They might offer to call them and ask themselves or suggest the coordinator call them directly.

A logbook is a helpful communication tool when more than a few people are involved in a big project. In this log book, volunteers, the contractor, the person with long-term care needs, and the family can all write notes about what they did when the others were out or what they need for the next day to continue the work.  You might also include a ‘guest book’ portion in the book where guests write in inspirational, spiritual, or funny thoughts during the actual renovation. These comments make great keepsakes if you make a photo album or scrapbook of the renovation.

Recognize that not everyone who wants to be a member of the support circle will be accepted, for various reasons. If the person, for whom the works is being done, prefers not to have someone come to their home, the coordinator tells that person that the decision should not be taken personally. It feels personal, however, but you can help the person accept that one person does not want them in their home but others will still value their contributions. Some people do not "click" and that is all right. Or it may be a question of privacy or gender. That person might still participate indirectly by cooking some meals, making phone calls, or helping run errands without having to enter the home. They may be helped to find another project for which to volunteer.

Recognize that whenever a few people get together there are tensions, misunderstandings and mistakes. People are doing their best but may do little things that annoy each other. Recognize these stresses and discuss them with others on a one-to-one basis or at general meetings if the problem goes beyond a few people. An example is people who enter the person’s home, in an area where there is no construction, without offering to take off their shoes. This custom is perfectly acceptable in many people’s homes but unacceptable in other homes. Knowing these little things help make the experience more positive for everyone. The key is to remember that members are visiting someone’s home where the individual and family are used to certain routines and behaviors. It is quite different from visiting that person at work or in the shopping center where routines must blend in with other people’s routines. The coordinator can be helpful in listening to family members and understanding their customs, fears and concerns. They can convey these back to volunteers, the contractor and others coming to the home as a list of expectations on the project (e.g., Whenever it is safe and possible, please remove your shoes).

The family needs to understand that when volunteers come into their homes, the family must show respect and appreciation. Small gestures make a big difference. For example, welcoming people when they arrive, being prepared for the day’s work, offering refreshments and making sure that volunteers either bring their own lunch or are given lunch (e.g., some volunteers not working on the construction work can bring lunch for the workers).

It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between giving support and making decisions for people. Regardless of your views and wishes, you must, as a support circle member, follow the wishes of the person as best you can. If necessary, call the coordinator to make different arrangements so that you do not have to do anything that goes against your strongly held beliefs. At the same time, the person does not have to give up control over their life to make you happy. This line between providing support and making decisions should be discussed at most general meetings to help remind people of this gentle, yet vital, balance.

Support Circle members may be uncomfortable at first with the person’s disability. If they do not have a lot of contact with the person, this is quite normal. Help them understand the person’s gifts, their abilities and their home renovation needs. Help them learn any specific communication tips that will increase everyone’s comfort. Over time the comfort levels of everyone will increase.

Support circle members may hear confidential information from the person and their family members. All this information is confidential and must not be repeated to anyone without permission. This includes one’s own family and curious neighbors. The smaller one’s community, the harder it is to keep information confidential. Confidentiality is a useful topic to discuss at a group meeting to ensure the person’s privacy. In some cases, the individual or family may request a confidentiality agreement be signed by all members.

Use the talents you have rather than try to learn many new ones. Find people who have the skills and interests you lack so that you can concentrate on using your talents. For example, you may be good at demolition work but not at rebuilding. Someone else may help with cooking for volunteers while someone else has a ‘handyman’ hobby that includes some of the skills needed for this project. At all times, you can offer to be the ‘gofer’ to help out with carrying supplies, cleaning up at the end of the day, or ensuring the work site is safe .

There may also be household chores that would help the family immensely including some cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking the dog, or running errands. If the person with the long-term care needs would benefit from some help with eating and drinking, transportation to appointments, or getting around the house, this would be an excellent way to help.

For support circle members committed to helping out with the project remember some of these things:

Incorporate this project into your life and give it priority in a way that fits in with your other priorities, e.g., family and work.

When you make a commitment, stick to it.

Know your capabilities and respect your limits.

Use others for support.

Confidentiality is critical.

Respect the person’s home. It is not just a construction site but their home.

The coordinator of the project is the focal point for a smooth running project. They act as the center point for information between the person whose home is getting renovated, the contractor, and all the volunteers.

The circle may decide that it would help to meet regularly during the project. The meeting could be held at lunch time every week or two. All circle members would be invited but likely only those working that day plus a few others will attend. At the meeting you might discuss:

1. updates on the project,

2. how people feel about the progress to date (both positives and negatives),

3. jobs that need doing in the short and long term,

4. stories that bind the group together more strongly.

Someone should take good notes to include in the log book so that everyone stays up-to-date on what is happening and what can be done to make the project even more enjoyable and successful.

Volunteers and members of a support circle feel connected to practical, useful work. This project is a wonderful way to build community beyond what is required for a construction project. When everyone benefits from the process, life-long friendships can begin or continue.

No Place Like Home

Below is a FREE iBook of our book No Place Like Home.

In return for your reading and printing off this book, we ask only that you email us. This lets us know how many people are accessing this FREE information. That’s it! Just email us:

If you find the iBook helpful, please let other people know they can access it for free too!

Copyright © 2003, 2006 Harry van Bommel

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical copying, recording or otherwise, except with the prior written permission of the author or under license from the Canadian Copyright Agency.