Program provides refuge for elderly Adult foster care in county celebrates 25 years of service

December 01, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Cheryl and Dale Poletynski's large new Rosedale home is a monument to communal living -- and a refuge for three frail tenants who otherwise would be hard pressed to find a place offering assisted living on their meager incomes.

The couple is among a handful of families taking part in a landmark -- but little-known -- Baltimore County program called Adult Foster Care, the first of its kind in Maryland and now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The $50,000-a-year county program, the model for the state's much larger $5.3 million Project Home, pays families up to $1,000 a month to take low-income and elderly disabled people into their homes.

By contrast, larger assisted living homes charge up to $2,000 a month and nursing homes even more.

"It was a way to earn money, and I could do something good for people," says Cheryl Poletynski. "I provide housing, food, transportation."

With the county's population of senior citizens expected to grow from the current 20 percent to 29 percent by 2020, programs like Adult Foster Care could become an important way to house people who have little income, officials say.

"Our biggest problem is that out of the 136,000 seniors we have, the fastest-growing group is 85 and over," says Charles L. Fisher Jr., director of the county's Department of Aging.

Adult Foster Care, says county social services director Camille B. Wheeler, "keeps people in their communities, and it's less expensive."

Under the program, seven county social workers screen applicants and providers, match their needs, abilities and personalities, and make frequent visits to see how they are doing.

The program pays the difference between what the residents can afford and the $1,000-a-month maximum that providers get for their care.

The foster care clients keep $107.50 a month for personal expenses. Many go to day activity programs paid for by Social Security or Medicaid.

"Most of our folks are medically frail, or in the beginning stages of dementia or have disabilities that prevent them from living independently," says Deborah Vestryk, supervisor of the county program.

Budget cuts

According to Vestryk, Adult Foster Care has suffered lately from an old bureaucratic malady -- different agencies working at cross purposes.

County budget officials set aside $100,000 a year for the program during the past two fiscal years, but cut that in half this year to match the amount actually spent.

Wheeler said the budget office resisted raising the maximum monthly payment per person beyond $750 a month. At that level, not enough providers could be found, and only half the annual appropriation was spent.

This year, the top payment finally went to $1,000 per month per person -- but the county budget cut has left 15 people waiting for homes and new providers waiting for more funding.

"If we could get the $100,000 back, we could build the caseload up," Vestryk says.

In Baltimore County, the state and local programs provide places for 85 people in 70 homes from Lansdowne to Cockeysville to Essex. The county pays for 11 of the people, with an average monthly subsidy of $380.

'Very lucky'

At the Poletynski home, the program has made care possible for 87-year-old Elizabeth Haubroe and her two second-floor companions, Katie Lawlor, 45, who is disabled, and William Gendimenico, 81.

The tenants, who have an electric chairlift to help them get

upstairs, share the Poletynskis' modern home with the couple's teen-age daughter, grown son and the son's wife and two young children.

The Poletynskis' son and his family occupy the southern half of the home, separated by interior doors from the northern half. But everyone is treated like family, with grandchildren and in-laws back and forth between quarters constantly.

"I was very lucky," Haubroe says, recounting how she lost her husband and her mother long ago and lived for years with another elderly woman, who eventually became too frail to live independently. After a short stint with a great-niece, Haubroe learned of the county program from her pastor.

"Cheryl is so good to me," Haubroe said with a smile, sitting on one of two white couches in the immaculately kept home's large entry foyer, telling a favorite story about how she knew Cal Ripken's great-grandmother, who used to shop on East Baltimore Street.

Residents are good company

Haubroe often waits on the sofa in the afternoons for Katie Lawlor, who attends a day program, to return.

Since birth, Lawlor has had hydrocephalus -- fluid on the brain that causes an enlarged head and mental confusion. She was in a serious auto accident six years ago that robbed her of short-term memory and left her with lasting damage to her knees. Still, she is cheerful and good company.

bTC Coming to live with the Poletynskis after a lifetime at home was a jolt, Lawlor said, but with her siblings grown and her mother gone, "It was a nice change. I got to be with more people."

Her father, 75-year-old retired bricklayer John J. Lawlor, agrees.

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