In October 2018, Catholic Charities started delivering very good news to residents in its Senior Communities – or very bad news, depending on their point of view: the campuses were going smoke-free in a year.

Now, a few months after that change went into effect, the impact on some residents’ health has been dramatic. One resident described quitting smoking – after 50 years – because of the policy. Another cut back to two cigarettes per day. And another sent Senior Communities staff a letter of appreciation.

“The toughest thing I had to do is give up the cigarettes,” wrote the Coursey Station resident. “With your turning your building into a smoke-free building, I’m letting you know you saved a life.”

Catholic Charities owns and operates Senior Communities in 24 Maryland locations, providing nearly 1,800 affordable apartments and other onsite services to older and disabled adults. The organization recognized the shift to smoke-free was going to be a healthy but monumental undertaking and rolled out a comprehensive plan to support residents through the change.

“I’ve been slowly letting smokers know that … the change was going to come,” said Nancy Belisle, a service coordinator at four Senior Communities in Baltimore County. “They didn’t need to be smoke-free, but the campus needed to be.”

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD, had made public-housing complexes smoke-free in July 2018. The rules change did not affect Catholic Charities properties, but the organization does receive funding from HUD and therefore proactively set its own schedule.

This encouraging reminder gift bag helped reinforce the message and help smokers quit if they chose.

Administrators wrote to all residents to alert them to the change and offer support, including connections to smoking-cessation programs. Staff used various reminders, including posters in the buildings, and gift bags with fidget spinners, candy, and an encouraging message. The approach aimed to target the habit, not blame the smoker.

Belisle understands non-smokers’ excitement about the change. Many were tired of smelling smoke in the hallways, common areas, or even in their own apartments. But she also understands – and has tried to help – those smokers who can’t or won’t quit, and need to leave campus to light up. For one resident, a heavy smoker who is largely home-bound, Belisle stopped by every couple of months to talk about his plans. He had no intention of quitting, so she made sure that his electric wheelchair was working, that he had considered his best route to the sidewalk beside the property, and that he had a big enough umbrella for rainy days.

Belisle, who has worked at Senior Communities for 18 years, said she has seen a rapid decrease in the number of smokers in the buildings, from about half the residents to just five or fewer in each building.

No one has moved out because of the policy since it went into effect in October 2019. Most other complexes at similar points are also smoke free, and Catholic Charities Senior Communities typically have waiting lists of two or more years.

The change will produce significant savings for the properties over time – preparing a smoker’s apartment for the next resident often requires replacing carpets and blinds, and cleaning and repainting walls – but the health outcomes may be just as significant.

As the Coursey Station resident wrote: “I still get very strong urges for a cigarette. However, I’m determined to stay 100-percent smoke free.”