Nursing home escapee tells how he did it A 'senior citizens' gulag

Bert Breuer

January 29, 1991|By Bert Breuer

I'M AN escapee from a nursing home.

After more than a decade of bouncing from one of these old-age prisons to the next, I finally decided I'd had enough. I figured I'd paid my nursing home dues as a wheelchair-confined paraplegic in his late 60s. I wanted a better life for myself.

Quite frankly, I'd seen all I wanted of the "senior citizens' gulag." After living in half-a-dozen of these warehouses for the elderly, I had gradually realized that all of them were the same: They were run for the convenience of the staff. The service was usually awful, the food was usually worse and I had begun to feel like Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables."

What I hated most was the military atmosphere in these places. I remember how, at my last home (a well-known one in South Baltimore), if you left the "campus" without permission, your chart would read: "AWOL." Those who had obtained permission were marked "AOL." I was surprised this home didn't use military time!

Soon after I started staying in nursing homes, I discovered their operators were experts at discipline, at what the psychologists call "tough love." Over and over again, I watched bothersome patients get sent to their rooms, where they often ended up in restraints. And on many occasions the staff also resorted to tranquilizers: They were quite eager to sedate an annoying patient.

After putting up with these hassles for a few years, I asked myself: How could I expect such a rigid environment to promote personal development? This insight haunted me. But when I mentioned it to my social worker, she simply reassured me that I would "get used to it."

I knew it was time to move on.

I had to find a way out, to build an independent life for myself.

I'd already begun to make my move for independence. By the late 1980s, I was enrolled in graduate school at the University of Baltimore. I left the nursing home at 6:30 each morning and didn't return until 8 p.m.

I felt like a new person whenever I arrived at the campus, but my heart always sank with the realization that, sooner or later, it would be necessary to return to my concentration camp.

Slowly, I began to plan my escape.

I wrote away for housing lists. Of course, I stayed clear of "handicapped housing" -- I wanted to live as normally as I could. But I knew that I would need a place with an elevator if I wished to live above the main floor -- and I did.

After months of searching, I discovered an ideal apartment complex only two blocks from campus. It was time to review my finances. I started with a basic fact: the Veterans Administration was contributing $9,600 a year toward my nursing home fees.

What I needed was some flexibility. So I talked to my local service organization, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and they helped me convince the VA to shift some of those funds over to pay for independent housing.

After weeks of discussion, the VA finally agreed to earmark half of the $9,600 for my new apartment.

I was overjoyed: By combining this sum with Social Security and some savings, I knew I could make it!

But my euphoria was soon threatened by fear of failure: Could I really make it out there, as a self-sufficient paraplegic?

Luckily, I now had the strong support of an enthusiastic social worker. She pointed out that the rewards would be worth the try -- and that I could always return to a nursing home if I had to.

With her blessing, I made my arrangements at the new apartment building. The big day finally arrived. I was nervous, and then I was really nervous when a staff member at the nursing home said as I left the front door:

"You'll be back. You won't make it."

A few months later, I'm doing OK, taking three courses at UB. I've proved that you can succeed in building an independent lifestyle, even with a physical disability, provided that you obtain good supporting services -- and that you've got the determination to make it.

Bert Breuer, a paraplegic, celebrated his 70th birthday Saturday. 1/2 He lives in an apartment in downtown Baltimore.

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