The last week was a sea of phone calls, visits, and trying to stay organized and focused. I was also trying to finish long-overdue reports. It is an arduous process, namely because the data we collect does not match up with the data that is requested for one particular program’s report. Therefore, instead of hitting a few buttons and spitting out data, I need to go back and do it by reading notes and making tally marks–remembering in the process the details of daily life of every person I saw during the quarter. Sometimes it kind of gets to me.
It is the nature of the job that everyone I see in my work is in some sort of crisis situation. From the hospital (where I often meet people for the first time), they may often go to short-term rehabilitation hospitals (or to nursing homes that fill that function), and then home by the end of my time with them. The best-case scenario, I have to admit, is when a person never wants to talk to me again.
It happens fairly often. An individual is in the midst of catastrophe at one moment, but it is over after a time. Life goes on, and rarely does anyone want to remember any details from the lowest point of a tough spell. When someone says, “No, we are all set,” I am happy about it.
But this is not always the case. Many people simply die. Or sometimes I am unable to reach people for months, but they turn up years later, with more problems, greater financial burdens, and perhaps loss of hope. Other times, they hang on, calling often for some sort of help, hoping that among my “options” is one that will actually remove the barriers that keep them so far from being the people they are, or were. Sometimes there is something that does help. Sometimes I see people I met previously, sitting in a restaurant, laughing with friends–when months earlier they were, say, in a nursing home. This is a good day. Most of the time, the best I can do is listen, and not lie when I say that itwilltaketime or youdonotqualifyforthat or youaredoingallyoucan. My role is limited–I cannot be a companion, or even a friend–as so often becomes quite obvious.
I have been thinking of this quite a lot lately, that going into people’s homes, entering into moments of great change with them… it is so difficult to remain neutral and unattached, but it is all in the name of survival with so many people to see. It is also what we are trained to do, in the name of professionalism. I don’t mean that we are expected not to care. We are just expected to remain objective and fair. It is a tough balance to do that, and then also to remain healthy ourselves.
I have been on the other end of all this support, especially when my boys had in-home services. At times, my family life revolved around whichever therapist was due to show up that day, sometimes (when we were lucky) joining another support person who came everyday. From the receiving end of these sorts of in-home supports, I have signed agreements of understanding that the relationship is limited, and not permanent. People who came to help my kid could not accept an invitation to bring their own families over for a friendly dinner with us later on, no matter how close we felt to them, no matter how well they fit into the fold of our family. It is dramatically difficult to be in this situation, to need someone hands-on for such enormous quantities of time (time that then cannot go toward reaching out to make a new friend, who can actually be a real friend–and isn’t it ironic that everyone keeps telling you to do this!), and then to say goodbye.
It is difficult, as a professional, to sense the intense isolation, the inadequacy of things like transportation, to see the gaps in much-needed assistance, the fear in people’s faces as you close the door behind at the end of the day–and then to walk away, to have to refuse to give that ride, to stop off and run that errand, to spend a little extra time when others–many others!–are waiting for not-en0ugh-help. It is sometimes a guilty feeling, too, to be relieved to get away from the people who try our patience and drain us… They are nearly always lonely, too. The health risks of loneliness have been documented (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20652462), but we have yet to figure out a solution to the isolation, other than institutional care. There must be a better way to preserve individual choice, and yet at least support the means for people to sustain friendships and not just caretaking relationships.
So we leave our home visits, and we see the pain in the lack of connections for so many of the individuals we see. Sometimes we feel it ourselves, in our own desire for meaning, but ultimately in our utter inability to supply the one thing that people need the most–which is one another.
The referrals continue to pour in from One Care for assessments around long-term support services.
This week I want to focus on the very nature of our “long-term support service” world, and what happens on the ground when it becomes real to the acute medical model. For the last year (and then some) that I have been contemplating this groundbreaking notion of healthcare with the dually-eligible Medicare/Medicaid population, the policy side of the model has carved some notion of what this all means.
The reality is that the One Care program is growing very quickly, and plans are hiring all sorts of people who have not been privy to all the advocacy that preceded implementation. So, once more we are experiencing the pain–and possibility–of merging two very different service worlds (acute care meets the day-to-day grind)
This is hard, but it is excellent. Now we have the exciting opportunity to show, rather than just tell, how health and healthcare itself affects the lives of a real people.
In my second assessment, this is exactly the situation that presented itself, as I met with an individual who had previously received some assistance from my agency. She now has returned to us through a referral for a long-term services and support assessment–the next step as this individual seeks the expanded services, and lack of co-pays, that One Care can provide to her.
Now, this consumer has managed quite well on her own throughout her life, but she does have a noticeable disability. I am around it all the time–used to it in my own family, my friends, my work, my world in general. It is strange to me in other parts of my life to step outside of it all and remember that many people really do not spend a lot of time around people in wheelchairs, or who have amputations, who use assistive technology to communicate, who have anxieties, or whose movements or behaviors are somehow… different. I worked for a long time in translation, and found a similar phenomenon when other people remarked on accents. These are cultural differences, more than anything else. But our acceptance of these cultural differences–or even our expectation of them–can vary widely depending on our experiences.
As I have lived in a world of disability for a long time, I have also seen that there is often a sort of entrepreneurial (a.k.a. do-it-yourself) approach to life that comes from a life of living in a world that does not always meet the exact need. If we think about it, we all do all sorts of strange things to make our way in the world–it’s just that the adaptations of people who look, act and move differently are bound to be different, too. And when I say, “different,” I mean, it may look risky, unsafe, and generally inadvisable. Just like half the things I do at home.
Without going into undue detail about my most recent assessment, I want to note that my biggest recommendation to the caring and well-intentioned medical team is this: Back off! I know this sounds incredibly harsh, but sometimes people’s lives are working much better than we think they are from our objective perch. Sometimes a person does not want 24/7 care–and in fact, that round-the-clock home invasion may actually wind up being draining and intrusive, and detrimental to the person receiving it. Maybe bad things can happen. Maybe they can happen, anyway. Maybe the fact that we can put a service in place does not always mean that we should.
And we especially should not, when a person tells us not to.
Now, this gets us back to the crux of all independent living philosophy, which emphasizes consumer control. But this is it, in the home, on the ground, running. Or rolling, anyway.
And I cannot get far in this conversation without acknowledging the very large elephant that sits in every meeting room whenever we in our disability world meet with the Medical Model. That elephant is that the disability world does not trust the medical world. I suspect that the feeling is mutual.
This said, we want to trust, though. Don’t we? Isn’t this why we are here, at this historic point now? I see so many efforts from the medical world to create medical homes, and to reach out to people who have always been seen through a lens of “complex medical needs”–to see why health does not improve, or what is working well. From the viewpoint of a person with a disability, medical care is necessary, if only to prove a need for accessibility. But it is more. We have a real opportunity now to reinvent what healthcare means, not just to people with disabilities, but to all of us. Living life is the real issue, and facilitating our capacity to have a high quality to that life… We do not need intrusion, but listening, and understanding.
It takes time, and change is hard. It is a relief that everyone wants to try.
In the time since I last wrote here, the world has changed.
We have embarked on so many new adventures in the agency where I work, in the state, in the country… It is all a bit baffling to see the ideas so long expressed coming to fruition now. I find myself once in awhile holding onto my cynicism like an ugly old jacket that served its purpose well enough to protect me back in the day, even if it never quite fit. Same with our healthcare. Hard to believe we might be able to order something tailor-made, but right now I am in the ordering business!
Last week I went out to do my first long-term services and supports (LTSS) assessment for the One Care program–Massachusetts’ demonstration healthcare program for people ages 21 to 64 who are dually eligible for Medicare and MassHealth (Massachusetts’ Medicaid program). Since people in this age group only receive Medicare after they have been on SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) for two years*, we know that their disabilities are significant and long-term. MassHealth is triggered also by low income and/or disability. Some may buy into the MassHealth system, but most would only do so to maintain some sort of long-term benefit, such as personal care attendants. Either way, we know that dual-eligible individuals often struggle with day-to-day life. While it may be an illness or disability that has made daily activities difficult, it is also true that for many people, this lack of support in the day-to-day needs becomes a downward spiral into isolation and worse health.
The unmet need for long-term services is hellishly familiar to those of us who have worked or lived with disability for any length of time. I personally have clamored for years about what a great world it would be if we could embrace care coordination, medical home, consumer control, participatory healthcare, collaborative decision-making… I have had my mantras, my rants, my moments of frustration.
And now.. I have had the experience of sitting in a consumer’s living room, asking the individual what he needed in his daily life. He told me, told me what he does, what is hard, and I came up with a few creative suggestions for things that may make these things possible.. or easier. I have absolutely no idea whether a healthcare plan is going to recognize the tremendous benefit of, say, a gym membership and transportation to get there. Or support for companion pets. Or even homecare–not so easy to get that sort of help before a certain age. But I am writing it down, recommending it strongly, and ready to explain why.
This first assessment was difficult for me, mainly because I am so much in the habit of thinking two steps ahead, to what is available instead of to what is really needed. I find myself frustrated at my own realization of how much I had adapted to this system of thinking–a system that I have complained about for so long. I have spent so many years hitting my head on the wall trying everything I can possibly think of to get someone desperately needed help (and much of this help being for my own children) that I find it incredibly hard to believe that there is a program where I can write down, “Julie X. needs Y, because it will help her health in ABC way…”, and Y will be granted (I believe the preferred term is authorized). I have joked for a long time that my requisition for a magic wand is on hold, but by golly, I am beginning to wonder if that purchase order did not just go through.
So, when I send in my most recent assessment, with a few very reasonable recommendations that may be completely life-altering for that individual, I am going to hold my breath, cross my fingers, and try very hard to believe that this is really true.
I once saw a woman who was facing enormous challenges in getting any sort of support approved. It was very difficult for her, she said, not to compare notes with her friend from home. Her friend had been misdiagnosed with cancer, she told me, and the healthcare system of her native country had sent her friend for a week to a spa for emotional recovery. When her friend arrived on the train, an attendant was waiting to help with her wheelchair and luggage, and a ride to the spa.
The woman I was visiting looked around her now-cluttered dining room at her own unassembled monitors, and her calendar, and her list of appointments and medications she could barely remember, much less afford.
“This is barbaric,” she told me. It was hard to argue with her. She was sick, and tired, and had trusted enough to go through with preventive surgery that made her feel much worse than she had felt before–and this was months after she was told she should have recovered. She was at a loss to figure out how she could care for herself and her home now. Before her surgery, she had still been mowing her own lawn.
Imagine that this were different. Imagine that she had understood the affect that the surgery might have had on her life afterward. Imagine that she had still had the surgery, and that her doctors had planned for the hands-on support at home that she really needed to make a good recovery. Imagine that our biggest challenge in meeting need were simply a matter of figuring out how to schedule it all appropriately, and not whether it is even possible.
Imagine this demonstration works, and spreads to all of us in our new healthcare system.
I am ready to start imagining. Are you?
This week I have been thinking a great deal about the process of many things in life, things that are in theory quite simple, but are forever made difficult by what we have to do to follow through. I wonder how much time goes into this, how the process ends up being what it is.
Let’s start with Target.
More specifically, I point to the Target dressing room–at least the one in Framingham. My daughters were trying on shorts, and though we have tried on clothing there before, the girls forgot and headed back to a room without stopping.
“Wait!” called the attendant, who was rummaging through heaps of clothing near the entrance to the fitting rooms. “You need to take a number!”
The girls went back, and the attendant counted through the pairs they had chosen, handed them a number.. just like at Marshall’s, only not obvious at all.
I waited while the girls were in the fitting rooms, and watched as countless other people pushed carts through the narrow space that linked two departments to the dressing rooms. Every single person who went in was confused. For some, it was the most obvious place to go from one part of the store to the next. Others wanted to try something on. But what is the process? As the rooms became crowded, the attendant became more and more agitated, shouting, chasing down customers to make them get a number.
I felt sorry for the attendant. It seemed so obvious that the process was making her life miserable, making things hard for customers, and so easy to solve. All that the store needed to do was to put up a sign, indicating that customers should check in first. In other stores, the dressing rooms are set up so that it is impossible to go to the changing area without being stopped first. In some places, no one stops customers from trying on clothing in a private stall. In some places, an attendant has to unlock the doors. But when no one knows what to do, tempers can flare.
So, this is Target’s clothing department, which–we hope–is a relatively non-urgent area. But consider the medical world, where no matter the level of urgency, the level of stress is significantly higher than any retail experience. Or my service-oriented world, where people look to us to help them figure out how to find long-term supports. These are significantly more life-altering experiences than any clothing purchase. But the process to getting help is even more confusing. If it weren’t, quite honestly, I would not have a job (or at least, not this job).
The thing we have to remember in our own individual worlds is that we are here everyday, and have come to a certain comfort level with the way things are.
So, we forget to step back and remember how bewildering it has been to us to enter a new and strange place, like an emergency room–in an emergency. Or even how it feels to go apply for food stamps, when we need them badly but feel ashamed to ask.
I have a son with autism, and was always intrigued by the oft-used strategy of “social stories”–scenarios that explain step-by-step what to expect in certain situations. I have thought of this often, not only for people with autism, but for all of us. How much clearer life is when we can step back and focus not on whether we are adapting properly to the culture of a situation, as much as successfully accomplishing what we set out to do. At times this is critical, life-saving.
But more than expecting people to adapt to us, I am thinking lately more about what we can do as service providers to simplify what we do, to make our work more transparent–and in fact, more simple for ourselves, as well.
Not rigid–not incapable of tweeking or allowing for the unexpected. In fact, easier to tweek, more resilient.
It starts the moment we walk in a door, or place a phone call, look at a website… How does it look? How does it feel? How does that feeling affect our interactions with the individual? Are we attracting only certain types of people because of the environment we create? Do our unseen barriers shut out others?
Change both in healthcare and in services is on the way, whether we like it or not. Might as well embrace it, I say.. And I mean this. This is the opportunity we have to let consumers guide our thinking on what we as professionals do. Are we doing all we can to begin from a place of excellence? As I see it, the work we do can only improve, the trust we inspire can only be stronger, if we make our process clear from the start.
So.. I have arrived at the emergency room. How am I triaged? Who has priority? What can I expect?
A navigator stationed in the waiting room could make an enormous difference. Snacks for tired children. Free coffee. Obvious signs for the bathroom. Estimated wait times. But above the fluff, and most important: tell me what to do, and whom to tell, if my situation changes while I am here. Is there a sign explaining this? Can I understand it?
And when you move me back to a room, do not just leave me there to guess, and worry. The process of the emergency room is sometimes as bad–maybe worse–than the injury that prompted the visit.
A service agency can clearly display its signs from the street. A waiting area can be friendly, welcoming, non-threatening, but professional and serious. Does your name tell me who you are? Give me informative literature. What is the mission? How does a person get help? Is it okay that I just walked in? Explain the process. Is it still confusing? Can someone talk to me now? Maybe the process needs a change.
Just as great design can improve our experience of a beautiful home, design of our process can improve the good work we do. Let’s step back from our busy day-to-day, and just consider this, walk in our doors and think of how it all feels to the people who seek our services. It matters.
As the helicopters and police cheers roads gathered here In Framinghaam, it was thrilling, as it always is, to watch the racers speed past.
This year, of course, is different. It will never be the same. .
A life can be so radically altered in a heartbeat. We all know it, and yet we do not. We do not want to believe that evil is behind it, certainly. And yet, sometimes it is.
I think now about the families, the wounded, those who saw too much, those who lost so much. Strength, and love… We need this, need it so much in this world.
Last week I wrote about “This American Life” and the story about SSDI. My reaction was to applaud the exposure, the understanding of an invisible population of people with disabilities who are unable to work.
Many in the disability world, though, were not so generous in their view of this story. A number of organizations have pointed out the problem of lumping disability benefit programs in with welfare. They point out how incredibly difficult it is in many cases to get the much-needed assistance that SSDI and SSI provides to individuals and families, and that the program did not adequately reflect this. And I noticed that the portrayal of medical insurance did not tell the whole story, either. (It takes two years to receive Medicare for most SSDI recipients; Medicaid coverage is immediate for those approved for SSI.)
The truth? It is incredibly difficult to battle bureaucracy, no matter what the circumstances. It involves entering a world that seems entirely isolated from the official story, and it sure as hell does not come with a guidebook.
It hardly matters when the word “disability” comes into play; as soon as a disability affects any aspect of life, i.e., prompts the need for assistance or accommodation, the disability bureaucracy starts churning. It is impossible to move forward in life without going through it, and sadly, going through it is a brutal, demanding, demeaning exercise in proving to the rest of the world that it matters, that a person matters.
It happens in hospitals and doctor’s offices, in schools, in employment, in housing, in transportation, in everything–where suddenly a person with disabilities suddenly has to ask permission for access to everyday activities. It shocks and terrifies people who have never been through this process–and not without reason. It is not the person, however, who is shocking or terrifying; it is the system itself. No one should have to prove the need for human interaction–the right to be a part of the community–and all the things that may unite us as human beings.
What I found compelling in the NPR story was the recognition of people who are so often left out of the big picture, whether it be economic, or anything else. The story, while incomplete, has started conversations.
I was home sick over the last week, and had a lot of time and fever to lie around pondering philosophical questions…
…like, what is disability?
My mom, whom I am going to keep using as a reference whether I mean to or not, hurt for most of her adult life, and could hardly breathe or walk for the last few years. Yet, she never considered herself to be disabled. I found out how she had to use a towel to turn her key when she started her car, because her hands were so mangled from rheumatoid arthritis. Some call that an accommodation, may even find some better solution. Some don’t bother, and call it getting the job done.
But I thought more of this after kicking back with NPR on the old radio, listening as I like to, to This American Life. And wouldn’t you know it this week.. the program was all about disability.
Instead of listening to me ramble on for too much longer, please go listen. Ira Glass talks with Chana Joffe-Walt of Planet Money, who hopefully will take this stuff to the big time, meaning, beyond the realm of people who already know how discouraging it is to try to live a normal life as a person with a disability. I hope this will bring attention to the impossibility of being a person with less-than-optimum health and less-than-optimum education. Golly, can we do no better than this? I always think…
You see, I hear about places like the poor town portrayed in this episode, and I’ve lived in or near a few of them. People work hard, physically hard, do what they are supposed to do, and eat what they are accustomed to eating. In years past, even in my childhood, there was some wholesome aspect to it all, but as factories closed, as high fructose corn syrup got put into everything, as satellite dishes and video games replaced the outdoor sort of entertainment I remember, hope seems to have evaporated in towns like this. I exaggerate, perhaps. Or not. I stereotype. I apologize. There is always more to the story, and nuances that are missing. But still, it is hard not to look for something, when so many people are in such tough circumstances.
But is this what it means to define oneself as “disabled”? Is this all there is?
Ticket To Work?
Is it impossible in general to escape not only disability, but to escape poverty in general? It takes a really good job–a huge leap in most cases–to be able to survive beyond the world of TANF and SSDI (or SSI).
Work and love.. Freud said that these are the two things we need to be content in life. If we take that ability away, are we truly fulfilling our own Declaration of Independence?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
And indeed, are we not creating inequality? Are we denying equality?