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Commentary: When My Parents Couldn't Work Anymore, Medicaid Was There

Courtesy Keith Runyon
Les and Marjorie Runyon, leaving our hotel room at the Holiday Inn, Arlington, Glebe Road, August 1964. This was Monday morning, our first day in Washington.

Photo above: Les and Marjorie Runyon leaving a hotel room at the Holiday Inn, Arlington, Glebe Road, August 1964. The family was traveling to Washington, D.C.

The front-page headline in Sunday’s New York Times caught my eye: “ Medicaid Cuts May Force Retirees out of Nursing Homes.”

While much of the battle over changes in the Affordable Care Act is theoretical to many of us who’ve always had health insurance and coverage for things like rehab and even nursing homes, this one hit home for me. And I’m not alone.

In 1999, over Labor Day weekend, my mother had a paralytic stroke that left lifeless her entire right side. Although her mind was unimpaired, most of what she cared about in life was deeply affected.

Yet her heart, at age 75, was still strong. And her will to live was, at least for a time, unflinching. But within six months or so, after long treatment in a rehab center, Medicare required that she go home or go on full pay.

My parents lived the American dream in the postwar era. They were comfortably off, owned their own home and educated their two sons — with no student loans. But even in 1999, they couldn’t afford for long the steep prices that nursing homes charged. So Mother came home in a wheelchair, where she remained under my aged father’s care until he could bear it no longer.

One night in April 2000 the call came from my brother that my father was so ill that he was unable to rise from the living room sofa. Within an hour, he was in an emergency room, dying of congestive heart failure.

He was brought back to life by one of Louisville’s great cardiologists, Morris Weiss, but for the rest of his life he was frail, dependent on medicine and unable to take my mother back home. So nursing home care was the only option for her.

My father was always very private about his finances, so I never quite new when, but his savings (and Mother’s) dried up and she was transferred to Medicaid. He was even reluctant to speak of it. We all thought Medicaid was for indigents or those living with disabilities. 

Turns out, Medicaid was for us. I learned that a lot of nursing homes welcomed Medicaid residents.  A lawyer who specialized in issues involving the aged advised our family. Then an elderly aunt died and left Mother some money. Immediately she went back onto private pay until those dollars were gobbled up. Back on Medicaid she went. 

Meanwhile, Daddy sold our family home, which gave him some money for emergencies but very few pleasures. He moved into a nice senior citizens home, designed for independent living, with group meals and activities. He made friends and played cards and was close enough to Mother’s nursing home to pay daily visits. Then, he began to fail.

For a time there was a very real prospect that both of them would be in nursing homes at the same time. Then, in the spring of 2008, they both began a further decline. Mother decided that enough was enough. She told me and my Aunt Rose, “I want to die.”

And indeed she did, by declining food and medication. She ended her days in a palliative care unit in St. Matthews, where she had lived the happiest days of her life. In retrospect, I think she died of a broken heart.

A month later, her older sister died at the ripe old age of 91, in her own home surrounded by loved ones. And then, just after July 4, my father joined them, passing from life in the very same corridor as my mother, attended by the same nurses. It was a blessing.

It is too painful for me to imagine what would have happened if Mother had been thrown out of the nursing home for inability to pay. Health care reform — Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan-style — might well make that happen. 

The Senate and House bills are despicable legislation, the product of a time when lowering taxes for the rich Trumps caring for the people who made this country great through hard work and patriotic attitudes.

Keith Runyon retired in 2012 after 43 years as a writer and editor at The Courier-Journal. This year, he celebrates his 50th anniversary as a professional journalist and his second year on Medicare.