My 93-year-old friend, Nora, died because she was told she had to move out of the assisted living facility she had lived in for 10 years. "I wanted to die here," she said with tears in her eyes. Then she stopped eating and no amount of hand-feeding would part those lips. Two days after she moved into a new facility, Nora quietly passed away.
Perhaps the staff in the new place thought her death so soon was happenstance. The staff in the old place knew better. She was, after all, our Nora. We knew her best. We loved her.
I was a staff member at United Church Home in North Buffalo, which closed last year after being in operation for 126 years. Eight residents were relocated. Their average age was 87, and they were funny and smart, feisty and sweet-tempered. Many had not married or had children. Family members had passed on, and their friends were unable to visit. The staff turned out to be the ones who celebrated their birthdays and brought them goodies from the market.
We were family, and it was a shock when the word went out that the place was closing. In recent years, we were faced with much competition -- state-of-the-art facilities with shiny delicatessens and large, elegant lobbies. We had charm. But to the consumers, "stately" didn't cut it anymore. But what really did us in was our shortfall. In 2002, it was more than $300,000. How could a non-profit facility ever make up such a sum? Forty percent of the residents received Supplementary Security Income, the rest paid with private funds. The SSI resident was not able to pay the full daily rate, so New York State reimbursed the facility $27 a day, but the room cost more than twice that amount. New York State has not raised that subsidy since 1988.
In spite of that, in all those years, no resident was asked to leave because he was not able to pay his full share. We banded together with our sister facilities, protested our way to Albany for higher SSI subsidies and wrote letters to our legislators. The home instituted new programs, replaced an expensive food service and refrained from buying that much-needed van. Nothing worked.
We had a system in place to find new homes, and the resident exodus went swiftly at first but slowed as the months rolled by -- many assisted living facilities no longer were admitting SSI recipients. The macabre joke among staff was that if any residents were left on closing day, we'd all have to take one home with us. We were only half-kidding -- the caring never stopped even as the census dwindled.
So the residents were dispersed and the staff was, too. But we were not alone -- more than 55 adult care facilities in New York State have closed their doors since 1995.
We were caring, experienced health professionals who did the best we could in a financially strapped industry. We felt helpless as we watched seniors -- our seniors -- undergo the trauma of moving. At a time when they just wanted to live out their lives in a familiar environment, they suddenly had to face a new challenge.
Let's face it, adjusting to a new home takes all of one's energy, and energy is wanting in a 90-year-old. They wanted to die at our house. That has got to be the ultimate compliment.
LOIS VIDAVER was the former Community Relations Representative at United Church Home in North Buffalo.