An 80-year-old resident of a South Carolina retirement community has filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act over retirement community policies that forbid her to hire her own personal attendant in her own apartment.
Shortly before her 80th birthday, Blanche W. Bell, a resident of the Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community in Charleston, SC, started needing help with things like bathing and getting in and out of her wheelchair. Using her own money, she hired some personal care attendants to assist her in her apartment at Bishop Gadsden. She loves the retirement community, she says -- and wants to remain part of it.
When Bishop Gadsden officials found out about her attendants, they told Mrs. Bell that she must move into its on-campus nursing home or leave the retirement community altogether. They said their decision was based on their policies that ban long-term use of personal care attendants in their cottages and apartments. The policies, according to Charleston, SC attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson, purport to give Bishop Gadsden unilateral authority to determine where residents should be "placed."
On Friday Bell filed suit in federal court against the Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community. Her lawsuit claims the policies violate the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is the first lawsuit of its type in the nation against a "continuing care retirement community." These CCRCs are a growing trend -- campuses which offer a range of housing options for seniors, from apartments and cottages to assisted living to nursing homes.
Before suing, Bell tried to convince Bishop Gadsden to change course. When this failed, she contacted attorney Johnson, who in turn contacted the.AARP, which is now serving as co-counsel on the suit.
"The vast majority of older people want to remain in their homes as they age and to live as independently as possible. 'Continuing care retirement communities' can be a great resource for people who want the peace of mind of knowing a higher level of care is available if they need and want it," says AARP attorney Susan Ann Silverstein. "In this case, Mrs. Bell is totally capable of staying in her apartment using the services she hired and pays for so management shouldn't be able to force her into a nursing home."
"Disability discrimination can be as mean and hateful as any other kind of discrimination," Johnson says, "but quite often it comes from the misplaced notion that others know what's best for us. There is a myth that when you need help you need to be put away. Federal law recognizes that people with disabilities can and should live where we choose, making whatever arrangements work for us."
Blanche Bell spent most of her life in Michigan before establishing a retirement home with her husband in South Carolina. She moved into the Bishop Gadsden retirement community in 2000, after her husband's death. She has recently been diagnosed with ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"I love living here," Bell says. "I have made many close friends and want to remain part of things and in control of my life as long as I possibly can. In the nursing home, I would have very little personal space, freedom, or privacy. I'm not ready for that. My doctors and family agree. When and if the time comes, it should be my decision, in consultation with my doctors and family."
Posted June 12, 2005.
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