An ex-addict comes home to hard reality

January 25, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I RAPPED ON a sorry old rowhouse door in Canton, where the Formstone keeps falling and the house prices keep soaring, and I listened to a new twist on an old story that underscores a reality for probably thousands of Baltimore's middle-age drug addicts - they can't go home again.

It's just too hard.

They take long journeys into Nothing Land, spending years and sometimes decades shooting up, estranged from family, returning intermittently to their old neighborhoods when they run out of money, shelter, friends or schemes. But they can't stay. It's too hard. Too many bad feelings. Too many lies and broken promises. Relatives who live life clean don't trust them.

And even good intentions - such as the desire to make amends or help an aging relative - can bring nothing but tears. "It feels like the last two months, all I've been doing is crying," Deborah Abel said Friday.

Here we have a 51-year-old woman, ashamed of her drug addictions - heroin for about a decade, starting in her teen-age years, then painkillers (OxyContin, Percocet, Tylox) for years after that. She lives, for the time being at least, in her mother's Formstone-covered Canton rowhouse, having been away from there most of her adult life.

She returned in October to find the old neighborhood rapidly changing, with new homeowners in renovated rowhouses on her block and throughout Southeast Baltimore's hot real estate market.

She also found her mother, Buena Crawford, in the advanced stages of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, behaving strangely, sometimes violently, and exhibiting dangerous fascination with fire.

Abel also discovered that her 15-year-old son, Josh, who lived with his grandmother all his life, had been skipping school to take care of her. "I didn't know he'd been doing that," Abel said, and she sobbed again.

She didn't know a lot of things because she'd been out of the loop for so long. "Me and my mother didn't get along," she explained. And there were all those years of drug addiction, and years of therapy after that. Abel is still in therapy; she takes methadone to control her cravings. You can hear the creaky, cracking stress points of this woman's life as she speaks.

And the biggest stressor is the crumpled letter on the kitchen table of her mother's cluttered rowhouse - a letter from an attorney informing Abel that she and her son must vacate the property by Feb. 1.

There doesn't appear to be much she can do about it.

Here's the short version: Convinced by those who evaluated her at Johns Hopkins Hospital that Buena Crawford's condition had deteriorated to where she presented a risk to herself and to others, a judge of the Circuit Court of Baltimore appointed the city commissioner on aging her legal guardian. (John Stewart, executive director of the commission, is guardian to 268 such senior citizens.)

Crawford has been in a nursing home since early last month. She is poor, living on a fixed income from Social Security, but not poor enough to have her $5,000-plus-per-month nursing home bills covered by Medicaid.

In this country, an old woman has to liquidate just about all assets, such as a house, before the government will pay for her long-term care. A judge named a Baltimore attorney, Richard Stofberg, the guardian of the property, and Stofberg plans to sell Buena Crawford's rowhouse to pay her nursing home bills.

That's why he sent the letter to Deborah Abel.

That's why Deborah Abel called me the other day - she doesn't want to move out of the house, and she thinks she, "and not no aging commission," should be given a chance to care for her mother at home.

Nelson Sabatini, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said recently that he wants to see more elderly Marylanders cared for at home rather than in nursing homes.

A good idea, a nice thought, but that arrangement appears unworkable for Buena Crawford. She was recommended for nursing-home care because "no safe alternative exists," according to the petition heard in the Circuit Court last month. In the extraordinary event that a judge would allow a woman in Crawford's condition to stay at home, her primary caregiver would have to have been certified as qualified by a doctor, and on the job already for two years.

Deborah Abel meets neither standard. She came back too late, with too many problems of her own. There's probably nothing she can do to stop the sale of her mother's house, and her brother in Florida believes that's a good thing. He told me Friday he fully supports Stofberg's sale of the house.

So I told Abel she needs to take care of herself now, prepare to move to a new place, take advantage of the job training she's been getting in Dundalk and find a clerical position somewhere. Most important of all, she needs to get her son back in school. He has already done his part, caring for his grandmother as long as he could. He struck me as a bright and responsible young man. He deserves something better.

It might be too late for Deborah Abel to make amends and fix things for her mother. It's not too late to fix things for her son.

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