Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bell House demise brings painful lesson

I visited Greensboro's Bell House in September to meet adults with cerebral palsy and related disorders who had been told their longtime residence was being closed because government guidelines deemed it too big to be a home.  Medicaid rules designed to get people out of institutions dried up money for the nonprofit facility,  but residents insisted Bell House was far from institutional.

The final day was supposed to be Oct. 31,  but relocation has spilled into this month.  It's not that people weren't eager to help,  but finding new homes for people with good minds but severely impaired bodies isn't easy.

Doris Lentz in her Bell House room

"It’s certainly been much, much more difficult than we expected (and we knew it would be difficult)," director Jeni Kirk emailed me recently, as she worked to find a place for the last few residents to live. 

The funding system provides extra support for people with disabilities to live independently or in group homes with no more than three residents.  But people like Doris Lentz,  who lived at Bell House since 1979,  wanted to stay with the residents and staff who had become family.  Lentz,  who had a bad experience living in a nursing home as a young adult after her mother died,  also feared trading the independence she had at Bell House for a more restricted setting.

The closing drew extensive coverage,  and offers to help came in from nursing homes,  assisted living facilities and people with  "accessible"  apartments to rent.  But Kirk says frustrated residents and staff learned over and over that the label didn't mean a facility was ready to handle people in motorized wheelchairs who need help with bathing and other daily activities.

"We had residents go visit  'accessible'  houses and discover that they couldn’t even get into the building because there were steps,  not a ramp,"  Kirk said.  "We even had someone visit a place where the resident's room would have been on the second floor – without an elevator, and the caregivers told them that they would carry the person up and down the stairs  These kind of findings were the norm,  not the exception."

Likewise,  assisted living and skilled nursing centers would offer to take residents,  only to conclude later that they couldn't handle someone with such extensive physical needs.

Rhonda Christenbury of Charlotte,  a member of Lentz's family,  said one assisted living center in Greensboro had accepted Lentz and a handful of other residents in late October.  They had started moving in possessions and changing phone numbers when the facility backed out,  Christenbury said.

Lentz moved last week to a skilled nursing home in Burlington,  Kirk said this week.  "Though moving to Burlington was not what she or her family wanted, the facility is apparently quite nice and  (Doris)  and her family felt okay about the move,"  Kirk reported.  Another Bell House resident and friend will join her this week,  though Kirk said she had to fight  "bureaucratic rigamarole"  to get her in. 

"The final resident is slated to move to an apartment on Thursday of this week,  but again,  the bathroom is not accessible and he will likely have to get by with sponge baths until an accommodation can be made to retrofit the bathroom,"  Kirk concluded.  "This experience has really opened my eyes to the crisis that exists for provision of accessible housing for the disabled."