Access Living Helps Couple Find Freedom from Nursing Homes

By Kevin Cosgrove

Ira Perry and Kimberly Martin met at a nursing home. But that was, perhaps, the only good thing that came out of the experience of living there.

Prior to meeting, both Perry and Martin – who are now a couple - were seriously injured from gunshots on separate occasions. Both were also left with long-term disabilities (Perry can now walk again after physical therapy). Perry fell out of the second story of a building after he was hit and Martin had to have her leg amputated, which could not be fitted with a prosthesis due to infection. Both were in extended comas and Perry was in a coma for a month when he says that his doctor came close to pulling the plug.

These events were the beginning and not the end of their traumas. They then had to contend with the lengthy battles of getting themselves out of nursing homes and back into the community – a goal they both eventually achieved with some help from advocacy organizations including Access Living.

“The nursing home is not good for anybody,” Perry said. “They talk to you like you’re nobody. They talk to you like you don’t have common sense. They talk to you like you’re their kid or something like that.”

For Perry, the recuperation process following his injury turned into 12 years split between two nursing homes. Martin – who spent two years in a nursing home – said she witnessed flagrant systemic negligence and abuse on a regular basis.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to be put in a nursing home,” Martin said. “They treat you so inhumanly. You’re nothing. If you’re going to a nursing home, if you can’t take care of yourself, you’re in trouble. Because they will not do anything for you.”

Martin went on, “If I knew how to write a book and I could get it published, I would probably make millions off of what I learned in just two years from living at a nursing home.”

Among the abuses they witnessed, Martin said she saw a woman who was left unattended and unwashed for lengthy stretches of time. Martin said it got so bad that the woman would be covered in her own urine and feces and laying in soiled sheets. After she took it upon herself to clean up the woman’s bed, Martin said the staff threatened to throw her – Martin – out. Perry and Martin also reported that the staff administered sedatives to people who raised complaints.

“If you give them any kind of idea that you’re going to be a problem to them at any particular time,” Martin said, “they’re going to give you something to knock you out.”

Eventually, Perry and Martin were visited by transition coordinators connected to the Illinois Department of Human Services program Money Follows the Person (MFP). MFP seeks to locate people living in nursing homes who could be moved out with some initial assistance. Both Perry and Martin were deemed to be eligible and they were referred to Access Living to move things forward. Access Living’s housing relocation program helped Perry and Martin move back into the community and live independently. They moved out together in 2009.

Access Living’s Stepping Stones classes also offered Perry and Martin training to readjust to independent living, peer mentor sessions to get advice from other people who had been through similar experiences, and a network of advocates to ensure that all of the proper steps were being followed.

The first years following their relocation out of the nursing home were not always easy. They were living on their own at a place in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago and trying to acclimate themselves to the new transition. But they knew that they were finally free from nursing homes.

“Since I became disabled in 2003, it was very hard for me,” Martin said. “I was more or less a hermit. I didn’t want to come out because I was worried about people looking at me. Being in Stepping Stones and working with [the staff member who helped me] and everything, I learned to accept my disability, which I think makes me a better person. There are other people who have disabilities and might have gone through what I went through, with not knowing how to handle your disability – the shame and all of that – it shouldn’t be like that. You’re still a person no matter what.”

“I would recommend anybody and everybody to Access Living,” Perry said, “because they’re going to help you as much as you want it.” Perry and Martin took financial literacy classes at Access Living to manage their finances and Martin plans to take computer classes soon. They have also become peer mentors themselves to give back the support they had received when they were adjusting to life after the nursing home.

“They just turned a light bulb on in my head when I started coming [to Access Living]. They have opened so many doors for us,” Martin said. “That’s why I love to mentor because I just want people to have what I have. They can do it. You just have to put forth the effort and have faith and you can do it.”

Since the end of 2013, Perry and Martin have been living in a new home in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago. They say it’s been much easier for them to spend time with their families since they moved out of the nursing home. Martin has 13 grandchildren and said she is able to do more activities with them and Perry said he has become closer to his mother. “[My mother] was like, ‘What happened to that guy?’” Perry said speaking about her surprise at his new independence and contentedness. “Now she’s like, ‘My son is back.’”

In the long term, Perry and Martin would like to get back to work. Perry wants to do something involving construction or work for the Chicago Transit Authority. Martin - who had been a cashier for many years – wants to put the computer skills she will learn to use doing secretarial or desk work and also plans to go to Springfield to address the matter of why people who use wheelchairs are so frequently not given cashier jobs that arbitrarily involve standing up.

“I don’t mind doing any kind of hard work,” Perry said. “It might take years for me to get accepted, but I know that once I get accepted, I’m in it for life.” He continued, “I want a job where I’ll be so tired that when I get paid, I’m just going to go home and then put it in the bank.”

“What’s going on in nursing homes, you don’t have to live in that type of situation,” Martin said. “If you want something, go for it. Make the effort and you will be surprised where that will take you.”