Care of ill mother too much for woman

This Just In ...

November 14, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

In last Friday's column, I made an incorrect reference to Tulane University. It's not in Alabama, but Louisiana. The Southern institution I meant to mention was Auburn University, in Alabama. Sorry about that.

SOMETIMES it happens this way. Someone can't cope with what comes along in life. They get caught in a strong current that carries them away. They almost drown. The 33-year-old woman I met in Dundalk the other day seemed to have been through something like this. It was as if she had just returned to shore, dripping wet, stunned from the experience, laughing nervously.

"It's my fault," she said.

Her fault her mother's house was sold at auction on the steps of the District Court in Towson.

It went for $3,000.

The house is a Dundalk Avenue duplex with water stains on the dining room ceiling, modest furnishings and several cats. The word "fear" appears on a sheet of colored paper on the wall of the living room. The daughter still lives in the house. The mother is in a nursing home. That's how this whole thing started -- with the mother going into a nursing home.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

She's 69 years old, a diabetic who by the early 1980s was too ill to keep her job with the telephone company. Her health has been in decline for years. Her daughter uses the term "senile dementia" to describe the mother's condition. About six years ago, the mother became incontinent. She sometimes refused to take her insulin. She suffered a stroke. Her daughter, an on-and-off college student for more than a decade, left Tulane University in Alabama to return to Dundalk and care for her mother.

She was overwhelmed by the responsibility.

"I was in shock at how my mother had been living," she says, recalling a house strewn with trash, and a mother who could no longer care for herself. "I could look into her face and see that she just wasn't there anymore. Sometimes she would eat nonstop."

Or not at all.

Caring for her mother meant constantly cleaning her body, her clothes and her bed.

Something you should know: The daughter herself suffers from bipolar disorder, which means she is sometimes severely depressed and immobile.

Sometimes it happens this way -- the fragile caring for the weak because there is no one else around to help and no significant money to pay for the kind of intense, professional, at-home care that's needed.

When the daughter came back to Dundalk, she became immersed in her mother's sad world. She did not look for a job like the one she'd had in Alabama; she had no time. Caring for her mother was full-time work. Depressing, full-time work. Doubly depressing for someone already depressed.

Finally, in the spring of 1996, the daughter signed the appropriate papers to have her mother moved into a nearby nursing home. In doing so, the daughter took responsibility for paying the monthly nursing home bill -- about $1,300 after the state of Maryland, through the medical assistance program, kicked in its subsidy -- out of her mother's funds.

A Social Security check for $603 and a Bell Atlantic pension check for $762 arrived each month at the house on Dundalk Avenue. The daughter handled them for her mother. But here's something else you should know: She only made partial payments on the nursing home bills -- as little as $170 in September 1996.

"I had no other income," she says from a lawn chair in the living room of the house on Dundalk Avenue. "This house was falling apart, and it needed things. I had to buy new appliances, a hot water heater, and I had other bills to pay."

Sometimes it happens this way. Someone can't cope with their responsibilities, especially when it comes to money, and especially when there's not enough of it. The daughter wasn't working; she was severely depressed. "Things got out of hand," she says. By the fall of 1996, she owed the nursing home $4,000. The nursing home asked the daughter to pay the bill or take her mother home.

She took her mother home.

The nursing home's attorney filed suit in District Court to force payment of the bill. He got a judgment against the mother and daughter. He wrote a letter to the daughter to warn her that he could force the sale of the house.

Sometimes that happens at the District Court level.

But usually, the debtor pays up. In fact, I'm told it's rare that something isn't done to stave off an auction to settle a debt so relatively small. That's according to the Baltimore County constable who handled the case.

Time went by. The daughter did little to nothing. Maybe she was confused, maybe she didn't know how to ask for help, maybe she was too depressed to face what was happening. Though the daughter offered to make payments on the debt once she found a job, the attorney for the nursing home said he heard no follow-up to that idea.

By the time the daughter sought legal help through the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, it was too late. The constable staged an auction last month. A Baltimore County doctor was the high bidder. In addition to the $3,000 that he bid, the new owner will have to pay off all liens on the property to secure title. When all bills are paid, the nursing home might get half of the judgment it sought.

Now the mother has been placed in another nursing home, and apparently her bills are being paid. She knows nothing of what happened to her house. Her daughter remains there, alone in the house on Dundalk Avenue, wondering how long she'll get to stay. The new owner could become her landlord. Or he could make her move out. Sometimes it happens this way.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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