Any Home but a Nursing Home

Any Home but a Nursing Home

Disabled Alexandria resident, 61, searches for home for herself and her cats.

>"I’ve lived here 18 years, and I like it very much," 61-year-old Mimi Zwerling said of the city of Alexandria. However, she may be leaving the city in the next week or so. Bedridden and virtually broke, she can no longer afford to pay her $1,458 rent at Aventine Apartments. For the past six months or so, the city has covered her rent while trying to find stable living quarters for her, but that funding is about to end.

"Their only recommendation is the nursing home, and I’m not ready for that," said Zwerling, noting that she is "61, not 81."

Zwerling has been using a wheelchair since she was 12, due to a disability that was never quite understood. "That was way back in 1958, when they knew less than they do now, and no one’s been able to put a name to it," she said. "And now, I don’t care anymore. It just is. It just adds to my uniqueness."

She lived with her parents until she moved to Alexandria in 1984, and her parents continued to support her until she began working as a customer service representative for economic commentator Louis Rukeyser 10 years later. After nine months of work, though, "it just got to be too much," she said. She was granted disability payments and has since lived off that income and an inheritance from her uncle.

In 2005, a new wheelchair caused pressure sores at the base of her tailbone, and she was ordered to lie down until they healed. By the time they had healed, though, getting her in and out of a wheelchair had become a "two- or three-person job," she said.

Meanwhile, she had hired a health care worker to come to her apartment for four hours a day. "If I hadn’t had to do that, there would be no problem," she said.

When her inheritance ran out at the beginning of this year, Zwerling petitioned the city for rent assistance. At that point, Medicaid began covering a caregiver to come to her apartment in the evenings, and the city sends a health care worker to her apartment each morning.

Noreen Hill, who has been working with Zwerling through the Alexandria Office of Aging and Adult Services, said the caregiver from her office "just loves Mimi, and I know she’s there a whole lot more than she’s getting paid for."

WITH THE CITY NO longer paying her rent, she is being asked to leave her apartment in the next several days, said Zwerling, whose only income is $1,000 per month in disability payments. "They have been very patient and kind," she said of Aventine, "and I’m sure they feel awful about throwing me out, but it is business." She also expressed her gratitude to the city for its ongoing assistance.

Hill noted that her office also brings Zwerling home-delivered meals and occasionally pays for her prescriptions.

"All I need is a place to be for me and my critters," said Zwerling. Her cats are "more or less the reason I open my eyes in the morning," she said, calling them her "children in fur coats." She noted that a nursing home would not allow her to keep the cats, "otherwise, I wouldn’t fight it so much."

She also noted that she is still able to get around the city via public transportation, once she is helped into her wheelchair. In spite of her disability, she has been on cruises and has visited California, New York and Michigan, among other destinations. "In the 49 years I’ve been in a wheelchair, it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do," she said. "It’s just furniture."

However, Hill said Zwerling "really needs 24-hour care," which is one reason nursing homes are being considered before assisted living facilities. "I worry about her every night," said Hill. "What if she has a coughing fit in the middle of the night?"

She said the city has been paying Zwerling’s rent through rental assistance programs in the Human Services Department. "Those are usually much more short-term than this has been," she said, noting that her office has been "working pretty intently to keep her independent as long as possible."

"It’s just so much more assistance that she needs that we just can’t continue to provide indefinitely," said Hill. "It’s just a tough situation." She assured that her office would see to it that Zwerling is placed somewhere. "We’re just geared toward trying to keep her safe now."

Zwerling said she applied in April to live in the Claridge House, where she could have her cats with her, and the Annie B. Rose House, where the cats might be able to come along. Both are subsidized homes for the elderly located in Alexandria. She does not quite meet the age requirements at either home but could qualify for residence due to her disability. She has also applied for Section 8 subsidized housing through the city’s Housing Authority. But she said her name is "way down" on all of those lists.

The Claridge House accepts residents on a first-come, first-served basis, said manager Citas White, adding, "We do have a long waiting list." The residence has 300 units, 5 percent of which are reserved for people with disabilities. "So theirs is an even longer wait," White said of those on the disabled waiting list. She said waiting times are unpredictable, as they depend on when current residents leave.

Lorie Tackett, property manager at the Annie B. Rose House, said the wait to get into the house typically lasts between 18 months and two years. At least 10 percent of the building’s 91 units have to be occupied by disabled residents, said Tackett, so that, as soon as one moves out another is moved in.

Zwerling, however, has not given up hope. "I still have things to do, and the nursing home isn’t one of them," she said.