Meeting personal needs $72.80 at a time

Email|Print| Text size + By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

Karen Poirot, 57, won a James "Cotton" Tingle volunteerism award last month for going above and beyond as a medical escort to seniors. She might deserve an award for money management as well.

A resident of the Somerville Home, Poirot told state senators in May that it took her four or five months to save enough to buy a pair of sneakers.

The testimony of Poirot and other residents helped win a $5 million increase in the personal-needs allowance budget for Medicare- and Medicaid-eligible nursing and rest home residents. But seven months later, they are still struggling to buy gifts for the holidays.

In fact, gifts were among the first things to go when Poirot, a poet and former X-ray transcriptionist, moved to the home a year ago. "Now it's all handcrafts and writings," she said recently, sitting in the living room with several other residents who went to the hearing.

The Somerville Home falls between assisted living and a nursing facility, said administrator John Toole, and 95 percent of its 59 residents receive Medicare or Medicaid assistance. These funds are combined with Social Security and other payments to help cover the rent and basic necessities, and the residents are allotted a state-administered monthly allowance. "PNA money," as they call it, pays not only for luxuries such as eating out, but for transportation, clothes, haircuts, phone bills, toiletries, and prescription-drug copayments. Poirot's bus fare for medical escort trips comes from this budget.

In 1991, the PNA was lowered from around $72 to $60 per month, said an aide to state Senator Patricia D. Jehlen. The bump this summer brought it to $72.80. There will be no cost-of-living increases.

"What's frustrating is it was a little amount in the scheme of things," said Jehlen, who spearheaded the effort as chairwoman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Elder Affairs. The Somerville Democrat credited the residents' testimony for making the issue urgent. The bill has come up every year, but never went forward until the seniors came to speak, she said at the home.

State Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat who also serves on the committee, agreed. "These guys did such a great job of advocating for themselves," she said.

Residents played down the difficulty of making ends meet with only $72.80. "Doesn't everybody have stress?" Poirot asked.

Nine-year resident Jean Woodruff, 65, buys toothpaste for a dollar at Market Basket. "It's usually a crazy house, though," she said. For clothes, "we shop at Goodwill. Can't afford anything else." She takes care not to wear her better pair of sneakers in the rain.

"As you get older you get more frugal," said John Santackas, 78. He has to be: even with the increase, prescription drug copayments ate all but $8 of his allowance this month. Santackas said family would help but "you hate like hell to ask them."

Toole is working to reduce the load on residents by switching eligible people to a managed-care program without a copayment. Until last year, they had to pay for glasses and preventative dental work from their PNA funds.

The Somerville Home maintains a residents' needs kitty and offers free activities such as candlepin bowling, country line dancing, yoga, and trips to sporting events and plays.

Most of all, "no one's getting evicted because they can't pay their rent," Jehlen said.

The residents have seen the increase in bits, not bushels. "It takes less time to save up for your sneakers," said Jack Reichson, 73.

They still can't give significant presents. "Oh God, no," said Santackas. "The only thing I can do is send $5 scratch tickets."

Bob Rizzo, 63, and Woodruff planned to give $1 or $2 scratch tickets. Woodruff sometimes donates money to St. Catherine's for Masses for her relatives and friends. Poirot and her two children will spend time together in lieu of gifts. Many residents planned to volunteer at churches and soup kitchens, Toole said.

The home runs an optional present exchange with items from the dollar store. Milton Roy/Americas Corp. is sponsoring the home this holiday season.

In the past, residents never discussed any sort of Christmas gift at all, Toole said. This year, three were excited that they could buy $5 Dunkin' Donuts gift cards for college student interns. "It begins to empower them again," he said.

They could always give the gift of time to others. This holiday season, they can share that time over a cup of coffee.

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