Abandoned elderly man could be omen of future

March 26, 1992|By Timothy Egan | Timothy Egan,New York Times News Service

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- Clutching a teddy bear as he stared out from a hospital bed near the dog racing track where he was abandoned, John Kingery, 82, looked lost and helpless. But the face, that of an elderly person who does not even know his name and was left on society's doorstep, could become a face of the future.

Tuesday, still holding the same teddy bear, he was flown back to Oregon.

In the next 30 years, the number of Americans over the age of 85 is expected to grow five-fold, to a population of 15 million.

At the same time the number of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease is expected to triple from 4 million today to 12 million by the year 2020.

Increasingly, families pinched by the rising medical costs of aging parents and the strain of raising their own children are taking the radical step of abandoning the elderly, say experts on aging.

"Granny dumping, as it's called, was unheard of 15 years ago, but now the anecdotal evidence tells us it has become somewhat of a trend," said John Meyers, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons, which has 33 million members.

"Not a day goes by when a hospital emergency room somewhere in America doesn't have a case where some elderly person has been abandoned, usually by the children."

Although precise numbers are not available, the American College of Emergency Physicians surveyed hospitals and concluded that up to 70,000 elderly parents were abandoned last year by family members who were unable or unwilling to care for them any longer.

Mr. Kingery, who suffers from the mind-robbing disease of Alzheimer's, was flown home yesterday from a hospital here to Portland, Ore., as authorities continue to investigate why he was left near the restroom of a popular dog racing track in Post Falls, Idaho, on Saturday night.

Oregon officials said they were focusing their investigation on Mr. Kingery's daughter, Sue Gifford of Portland, who they said checked him out of the nursing home about 10 hours before he was found in Idaho.

Ms. Gifford has refused to answer questions from detectives, said Cliff Hayes, the police chief of Post Falls, Idaho. She did not respond to requests for an interview.

Idaho officials and authorities in other parts of the country say Mr. Kingery's case has pointed out a glaring hole in the law. Here in Idaho it is illegal to abandon a dog or a child, but not illegal to dump an elderly person who is dependent on others for care.

If charges are filed in the case of Mr. Kingery, they will be based on Oregon law, where such offenses are punishable by up to a year in jail.

The authorities in Oregon would have to establish that the abandonment was planned in that state or that the action began in that state.

"This came as a surprise to us and I'm sure to a lot of other people, about the gaps we have in our laws to protect the elderly," said Bill Douglas, the prosecutor of Kootenai County, where Mr. Kingery was found.

Holding a bag of diapers, Mr. Kingery was found in a wheelchair at a dog racing track in Post Falls, a community of 8,000 people near the Washington border.

A typewritten note pinned to his chest identified him as "John King," an Alzheimer's patient in need of care. He was wearing bedroom slippers and a sweat shirt that said "Proud To Be An American."

The labels on his new clothing had been cut away and all identifying markers on his wheelchair were removed -- an effort to disguise where he had been, say police.

After being taken to a hospital in Coeur d'Alene, Mr. Kingery spoke amiably with detectives about farming and his youth, but he could not remember his name and did not know where he had come from, said Chief Hayes.

He is incontinent and cannot walk, doctors said. He was identified after administrators of a Portland nursing home recognized him from a photo released to the media.

Oregon officials said Mr. Kingery had spent the last year and a half living in the Laurelhurst Care Center in Portland. The cost of his care was supplemented in part by Medicaid and Social Security checks.

Three weeks ago, against his doctor's wishes, Mr. Kingery was taken to another Portland nursing home, The Regency Park Living Center. His care there was paid in advance, for two weeks, by Ms. Gifford, said John Browning, the general manager.

Mr. Browning said that even though Mr. Kingery was in need of 24-hour care, the nursing home does not have the authority to stop a family member from taking a patient out of the home. Police and the prosecutor say Ms. Gifford checked her father out of the nursing home on Saturday morning.

In Oregon, as in some other states, a family that is financially pinched by the costs of caring for a parent can get help, sometimes from the federal government.

"We have all kinds of alternatives to dumping a parent, but that has not kept people from doing it," said Don Keister, director of Multnomah County's Aging Services Division, in Portland. "I think we are seeing more of this because of demographics -- what has been called 'the sandwich generation,' baby boomers squeezed between care of elderly parents and their own children."

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