How California Has Turned Its Back on Its Most Vulnerable Residents
By Nancy Berlin
"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped." ~ Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey
California was once home to one of the most comprehensive health care and human services safety nets in the country. As a statewide community, we prided ourselves in making sure that our seniors were well taken care of in their golden years, and that they would have the opportunity to live their lives at home surrounded by loved ones, and not forced into state-run institutions or nursing homes. We made it a shared priority that state policy would ensure that Californians with disabilities would be treated with the dignity and respect they deserved as equal contributors to California’s collective prosperity. These were the values that once defined a great state.
Yet in the wake of $15 billion in continuous spending cuts over the last four fiscal years, California’s seniors and people with disabilities face a desperate and uncertain future. Policy that has contributed to the annihilation of senior health care services in California is now responsible for the formidable challenges facing millions of elderly Californians.
Since 2008, nearly $200 million has been siphoned away from programs aimed at providing necessary and life-sustaining assistance to millions of California seniors and people with disabilities. Among the most recently targeted senior assistance programs included California’s Adult Day Health Care (ADHC) program – providing a variety of health, therapeutic, and social services to seniors at the greatest risk of being forced into nursing homes or state-run institutions. Previously, more than 300 ADHC centers across the state provided vital care and support to some of California’s most fragile residents.
The elimination of state-sponsored funding means the closure of countless ADHC centers throughout California. For those seniors at greatest risk of institutionalization, the closure of ADHC centers is a terrifying prospect. Take, for example, Susan B. from Sonora, California. At the age of 45, Susan suffered a stroke, which resulted in the functional loss of her left arm and significant weakness in her left leg. Prior to turning to ADHC, Susan suffered through a series of traumatic experiences, plagued with abuse and neglect, at a variety of nursing homes and residential care facilities.
When a neighbor finally introduced her to Sierra LifeNet ADHC, Susan recalls that it was the first time since her stroke that she felt she was treated “like a human being.” Not only was Susan able to get the high-quality care she needed, including physical therapy to help strengthen her joints and improve her mobility and arm strength, but the highly-skilled and caring providers gave her a new lease on life. They taught her to understand her physical limitations, but encouraged her not to be afraid to try something new. The center offered Susan friends and companionship, in short, “a reason to get up in the morning.”
For millions of others just like Susan, the loss of Adult Day Health Care centers represents an involuntary sacrifice of independence, care, and dignity. And while many nursing home and elderly care facilities do provide quality and respectful care for their patients, there are far too many that don’t. For those without family or friends to support them, the experience of forced relocation into an institution or a nursing home facility is particularly devastating, and is a significant contributor to increased chances of depression and reductions in quality of life.
We all have a responsibility to our fellow Californians. While it may be expedient for some to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from programs dedicated to services for seniors and people with disabilities, the glaring reality of the consequences and impacts are more than we as a state, as a community, and as a people can manage. It’s a necessity of life that every one of us will grow old. So too will our loved ones: our parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters; aunts and uncles. Every human being deserves the opportunity to live their life with dignity and respect. Every Californian deserves the opportunity to live fulfilling, independent lives regardless of disability. For this reason, all of us have a stake in the fight to save these critical services. And for this reason, we must continue to work to make sure that we, as a state, do not turn our backs on our seniors and people with disabilities.
Nancy Berlin is Executive Director of California Partnership, a statewide coalition of community-based groups, organizing and advocating for the programs and policies that reduce and end poverty.