Mental health officials show age bias, suit says

April 30, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

An age discrimination suit filed on behalf of a 72-year-old woman claims that state mental health officials routinely ignore the elderly when selecting residents for community-living facilities.

Many elderly people who would otherwise remain active members of a community are being inappropriately "warehoused" in nursing homes, according to the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

A woman identified only as Hattie J. of rural Dorchester County prompted the case. Sociable and outgoing, she likes bingo, music, romance novels and vegetable gardening, her lawyers said.

But since 1992, after being hospitalized for psychiatric care at the state's Eastern Shore Hospital Center in Cambridge, she has remained confined to a state nursing home. Her disability does not require such a restricted atmosphere, and she needs no nursing care, her lawyers said.

The suit was filed on Hattie J.'s behalf by a social worker, and is being handled by the Maryland Disabilities Law Center.

"Even though she's only 30 miles away from the community where she's from, she might as well be a world away," said Nancy White McCaig, an attorney with the law center.

"She's not in any way living the life she had lived -- taking care of her house, visiting neighbors, digging in her garden.

"She's elderly. She doesn't have that many chances left."

Her lawyers say Hattie J., like many elderly people in state psychiatric facilities, never was considered for a group home or other assisted housing in her community, although nonelderly adults routinely have those options.

The state Mental Hygiene Administration administers a variety of assisted-living facilities for the mentally disabled, including small group homes and three-person supervised apartments in ordinary neighborhoods.

Supervision ranges from drop-in visits to round-the-clock attention. That support allows residents a measure of independence.

Although about 16 percent of those in state psychiatric hospitals are 65 or older, only 3 percent of those living in housing financed by state mental health agencies are in that age group, the lawsuit said.

The suit, which names the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and its top officials, asks that Hattie J. be transferred to a community living situation and that officials establish a system of screening that does not discriminate against the elderly. It also asks for unspecified damages under ,, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Oscar Morgan, acting deputy director of the Mental Hygiene Administration, denied yesterday that elderly people are being passed over.

"Our programs are available to anybody, regardless of their age," he said.

But attorneys for Hattie J. say the programs specifically target those 18 to 64 years old, while older people capable of leading full lives with a little help get sent to institutions.

For Hattie J., it has meant isolation from mainstream society and has robbed her of making the smallest decisions for herself.

"The [nursing home] staff might tell you she's made a wonderful adjustment," Ms. McCaig said. "She sits in a chair a lot. There's a difference between adjusting to an institutional environment and being happy and content with your life."

In a small community residence, her suit says, Hattie J. could go about the daily housekeeping tasks she enjoys, re-establish social connections with family and friends, and have a sense of belonging.

Her lawyers say the psychiatric problems that led to her hospitalization in 1992 were resolved within days, although the staff determined that she needed a supervised environment. Initially, they recommended that she be transferred to a group home or similar place. But the state ultimately sent her to the Deer's Head nursing home in Salisbury.

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