Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Archive for August 2012


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The theme this week is around people who need people. And while this is lovely in an ideal world, I have to say that in this one, these are not the luckiest people in the world.

These are not unfamiliar thoughts on this blog, as I have often discussed the woeful lack of community-based, long-term care services. If we did build a society in which we realized that people needing people is a natural, human instinct, we would not have built communities that value privacy and independence above the community itself. Twisted, wrong interpretations of mottoes we hold in our collective psyche: Live free or die. L’enfer c’est les autres. Our misery comes not from having to tolerate other people, but from our refusal to do so.

So, enter the assisted living. I have visited many an assisted living community, and I must say that they can be lovely. In most, I enter the lobby with the feeling that I have entered a grand hotel, often with happy hour, and brunch–with carving station. Also, mostly, with a homogenous population of a certain age and a certain income bracket… and a certain functionality, too. A little too poor, and it’s the end. A little too incontinent, and it’s time for the nursing home. I struggle with the notion of these restrictions, and also with the notion of yet another sequestering of a population in its own community.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-weekend advocacy training sponsored by Massachusetts Families Organizing for Change. Tagged onto a fellowship that I had through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program, the experience was life-changing, particularly because of the people I met. But also because of the work we did. In one exercise, we sat as friends and family to design the ideal community for people with disabilities, for people we love. The first section involved looking at pictures of various houses. One was a typical colonial, not unlike my own house, with four windows, two up, two down, and a lovely little set of stairs leading to the front door. I saw that my mother would have enormous difficulty visiting, as she has trouble with stairs. So, we went on to discuss this, and so many other issues that come up. For wanderers, it would be such a relief never to have to worry about traffic or strangers, at least within a certain area. And what if we made it easy for service delivery, such as personal care? If people lived close together, it would eliminate transportation time and cost. If there were developmentally appropriate entertainment available, so much for the better. And so on. Before we knew it, we had created… Fernald.

Or something like it. Perhaps nicer, an assisted living sort of community, maybe. McLean Hospital, perhaps. But not the sort of community that has space for all of us, together. We anticipate the dangers of the outside world, and feel an enormous need to protect, to seclude, rather than to figure out ways to include and accept.

And so in our urgency, we reach that certain age–or someone we love does–and the time has come to find a place beyond the world and its children, its chaos and its property taxes, the hectic pace, the long walk to the mailbox in the snow, the laundry, the everyday.

We think of luxury in this way, an escape from the everyday responsibilities, but without this, without meaningful work, existence, can we remain whole and healthy? Or are we simply waiting for death?

In fact, I suppose we could argue that we are always waiting for death, but in reality I doubt that many in this country’s mainstream culture contemplate this notion at all, much less on a regular basis. And so we separate hints of it from ordinary life, this cultural obsession with youth, appearance of health, wealth… I fear that our desire to care, to help the needy, to seek solutions elsewhere, are all ways to separate ourselves, too, from the Other, the near-dead, the sick, the Us in them.

This week, I logged into my database to find an enormous number of consumers still flashing open files at me. I scrolled through the names, trying to remember the stories, and pictured some back porch, a kitchen table, a white dog, the scent of bacon and coffee still lingering from the morning, life, the stories, some waiting still to be told again, and lived, too, all distinct and yet the same in their foothold in this life, the one that we wish to tidy, to sanitize, to hold onto a heartbeat if not a heart.

I sat with three families in two days recently, and listened to the tremendous burdens they face as they attempt to care for their parents who cannot afford the luxury of assisted living. Is a nursing home the only solution? Not cheap, but at least feasible in the twisted funding structure of most state’s Medicaid programs, and their ever-present, post-Olmstead institutional bias. These frail family members no longer fit where they were, as they were, and yes, there are surely ways that they could, that we could fit intergenerational, inter-ability lives together, better. But for most of us, now, in a crisis, building a new world comes not so easily, not so affordably, not so quickly. We wish to include, but it is so much easier to protect.


Written by Only Anecdotal

27 Aug 2012 at 8:58pm

Going Home

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As hospitals edge even closer to dreaded October, when they will be penalized for thirty-day readmissions, I wonder why we are placing blame in the wrong place.

I know I sound like the overplayed record, which is indeed a sad place to be considering that no one plays LPs anymore (or do they?). But people who leave hospitals without sufficient supports at home will return, quickly, to hospitals for care. It will not surprise me when we see in the first reports on this policy that the hospitals who care for the sickest and the poorest will be those with the highest penalties.

Now, the problem that we continue to ignore is that people (including caregivers themselves) get sick, and people get old, and people at some points in their lives are either glad that they planned for it, or sorry that they did not.  But of course, there are always situations when planning is impossible, and chronic poverty would certainly be among them, but accidents happen, as well. And even very good planning can be insufficient for those facing a long-term diagnosis like multiple sclerosis.

Every time I drive past new housing that features the classic staircase leading to a narrow front door, I realize how much our nation is in denial of this issue. I think this particularly in lovely communities without public transportation, or even paratransit. It is really worse than not planning for aging in place, or for sickness in general; in many ways we live in communities that were planned with a vision of independence, privacy, and all the things that seem so desirable, but in the long run often work against our very nature as social beings. No, we have not planned for disability, or for the necessity of frequent hospitalizations, and we continue not to plan for it, not only in terms of health care (including long-term care, but in terms of our entire communities.

In recent months I have met with health care professionals from Denmark and France. When attempting to describe my job, I have been continually amazed at their confusion as I try to describe my role, which involves trying to figure out which slot may work for given people to find funding for services. Both of these western European professionals told me that it is not a question, regardless of income, whether people will receive support (state subsidized support) at home, but that the difficulty comes in coordinating schedules, and actual logistics of carrying out the plans. In other words, there are supports, and enough of them, and people who need them do not have to jump through eligibility hoops of the many variety we have here. What a concept!

But it is interesting also to think that in these imperfect, often inaccessible foreign communities, there must also be some acceptance of multi-age communities, universal design, and death.

This is not to say that there are no choices for in-home supports (or universal design–so much innovation!) in the United States, or that they do not exist. In fact, they do exist, abundantly, for those who can pay for them.

For people who do have supports, who have informal support at home, or can pay for personal care services, I do believe that STAAR or other post-hospitalization counseling programs may well help people avoid hospitalization.

But for those who cannot afford help, who return to isolated upstairs apartments, or to another sick spouse, or to dependent children, we will continue to find them, exhausted and sicker, back in hospital emergency rooms. It is not a matter of inadequate care in hospitals, so much as it is a call for help where we live.

Written by Only Anecdotal

20 Aug 2012 at 9:36pm

Up All Night

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As summer winds down now, I admit to having fallen into the habit of staying up late, and waking up late, as well. Vacation for some, luxury of the absence of alarm clocks, at least ones that go off before 8am… I could get used to this.

But so far, my nighttime wanderings about the house are no reason for concern by anyone who loves me. Right now, I have the fortune of good health, and no one is watching over me to make sure that if I am not resting, I am safe nonetheless. But the same cannot be said for so many families I have seen lately, whose patience and tolerance has been tested by lack of sleep, and lack of a break.

So, we do a lot of talking about a national need for respite for caregivers, but I think back to 2006, when I was speaking about the Lifespan Respite Care Act, and have to ask now, where is it?

Where is the respite care that caregivers of people with chronic illnesses and disabilities so desperately need?

Where, I ask two years into a three-year grant to find statewide answers, is the money? Where are the resources?

I am not making light of the work that many dedicated people have put into answering these questions, but I have to say that a full six years after the Act was passed, I am frustrated at the paltry sums I sometimes can dig up as answers to exhausted families and friends who are doing all they can to provide care at home. But it is not surprising that they reach breaking points, that eventually some people give up.

Caregivers get tired, and stressed, when reminded to “take care of themselves,” when doing so seems like another thing on the list, something else to plan, and re-plan, and often figure out how to fund, often privately–if possible. I know, because I have been there, and been on the receiving end of people like me, who tell me that they wish they knew of a solution for that particular need.

But truth be told, simply having the day-to-day help for the people we loved would be enough.

Now, actually, when I say, “day-to-day,” I really mean “night-to-night.” This seems to be the one thing that I can hardly ever figure out for people, unless they have the private funding to pay for it. It is not necessarily that individuals always need that elusive 24/7 care that frequently convinces families to depend on nursing home care. But so many people seem to need most of their help at night, when they may be frightened, anxious, or simply cannot sleep. Or maybe they do sleep, and awaken from necessity, may fall–or may not awaken, may not breathe, may wander. The world runs during the day, people may visit, if only to deliver mail or a meal. But at night, in the dark, so much of the world stops, whether our own rhythms tune into this or not.

I am looking for answers here, for respite, for available personal care hours that may not be during the day… I have families who keep asking me for more help, and more and more, I am frustrated not to know what to tell them.

Written by Only Anecdotal

13 Aug 2012 at 11:40pm

Evidence-Based Practices and the Full Moon

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5pm came none too soon today, phones ringing, and the strangest and most difficult situations making me wonder what on earth had happened over the weekend.

And then, we all remembered the full moon.

Oh, I have used the full moon as a catch-all explanation before, along with other convenient superstitions. But in truth, it is just another way of expressing that I often feel a need for making sense out of nonsensical situations, and often want some control when in fact I have very little–or absolutely none.

I include the idea of “evidence-based practices” in this conversation tonight, not in the medical sense, but because I often consider the meaning of this concept in my own work, as I try to justify it. Sure, I do keep data for my day job, despite what I talk about here, and am surprised more at the sheer quantity of people served than in any trends I see in those particular numbers. Maybe the numbers I pull are not the right ones. But then, what should I be measuring?

So, I think through the various stories I hear–my evidence, only anecdotal, as I have said–and try to look for patterns. Why so many people from one particular town? I assume a common referral source, but then realize that they are coming from everywhere, from doctor’s offices to hospitals to the neighbor from two towns over. Why so many with the same disability? or the same age? and why all at once?

I try to think of marketing efforts, or people in the community who have talked to me recently, or anything that makes sense of it all.. and rarely can I figure out any sort of reasons. Maybe it’s in the water. Or maybe there really are a lot of people who are turning eighty years old at the same time in a particular town, a town that lacks resources for transportation, perhaps, and a town where reassessed properties have caused taxes to rise dramatically on houses that these octogenarians paid off years ago…

But we have not measured these sorts of things–not effectively–and we certainly have not added transportation resources or other services that may give any sort of opportunity to test what sort of difference they might make.

And this leads me back to thoughts about the full moon, and that natural event that somehow may predict things. The moon, the stars, the transit of Venus… Do they predict anything?

In many ways, I like to deal with uncertainty, to figure out how to cope in spite of it–because in the end, life itself is uncertain.¬†Beyond that, also, sometimes all the causal relationships we try to create may in the end make no difference if the people involved do not believe in them. And they believe in them, because they feel the difference from a qualitative perspective, not because we assign a quantitative value to that difference.

I want to figure out evidence-based practices for people’s lives–but I am not sure that any of us is ever so great at determining what will work best in a situation that is not our own. We can insist that someone will do better in a situation, but in fact, we may be better at predicting the emergency department visits spiking at the full moon.

Perhaps the thing we should measure is whether people, given enough resources, really do figure out their own best practices for themselves, and in what manner they want to use our expert advice.

But for now, it is easy to be superstitious when we have so few other choices. And maybe, just maybe, good things will happen, if I just keep my fingers crossed.

Oh, and get ready: there is another full moon later this August! Only in a blue moon…