When "Adult Protective Services" Becomes Murderous

One Side of the Issue

Recently in my hometown of Canton, Ohio a trio of lowlife relatives of an 88 year old man were sentenced to prison for their failure to care for him before he died under horrific health conditions and a near total lack of  sanitation, all the while cashing his social security checks. Their treatment of the man has led local agencies to hold workshops on elder abuse and the local paper to run sides bars titled "Help protect the elderly." But the paper has not presented the other side,  the side of the elderly who are being forced out of their homes in cruel, unprepared ways into expensive nursing homes, who are being harassed by Adult Protective Services in ways that purport to be helpful and are in fact rude and presumptuous.

The Other Side

This past summer, my 82-year-old aunt was taking care of her home and husband, my 83-year-old uncle, when she received a letter saying that she had been reported for possible elder abuse and would be visited by Adult Protective Services. In the meantime, it was reported that my uncle had a gun in the house, and they were given two days to get rid of it by taking it to the police.

Later that day, her son called with a related message: if his parents did not move into a senior facility within two weeks, they would be in big trouble. If she were found guilty of elder abuse, she would go to jail, and my uncle, who depends on her, would be sent alone to "a nursing home, I don't know what kind," my cousin said, "probably a public one, probably not very nice." This son had not even been at his parents' house for months, not even that winter when my uncle fell on the ice retrieving the mail and had to go to the emergency ward. He reiterated the warning about the gun.

Now, my aunt and uncle would like to point out that the gun in question is 20 gauge shotgun that my grandfather gave my uncle (as he gave each of his 8 sons) the day he turned 14. My uncle considered it a valuable family heirloom and not a means of wrecking violence on himself or the neighborhood. Nevertheless, my aunt found a gun collecting relative to give it to, through the hands of the local police. This particular use of force is one my uncle remains bitter about, months afterward.

My aunt was beside-herself upset after receiving the letter, but she is one tough biscotti, and she got on the phone with everyone she could think of: the Stark County Council on Aging, the Veterans Administration, and even the law firm of her former lawyer, who had died awhile back. They all said they would not get involved with family issues. Finally one agency referred her to a retired lawyer in Massillon who provided some advice: that she should meet the examiners at the door with equanimity and  then hope that the intelligence he heard in her voice would carry her through.

So she did. And in fact, when Adult Protective Services walked in the door to her clean, beautifully-decorated house, the examiner said, "Well, I don't know what I am doing here." Nevertheless, the visits ground on for six weeks, often in the morning before my aunt and uncle had even had breakfast. My aunt finally asked if they could please come just an hour later. At the end of the six weeks, my aunt was cleared of any charges of spousal abuse--she who has cared for my uncle so well for so long. But the emotional upheaval has taken its toll. Today on the phone, she said, "It's so humiliating. It's a call from a government agency, all but accusing you of wrongdoing.

Eventually, her doctor confessed that since her husband's sugar readings had been super-high, he had asked the local hospital social worker to see if my aunt needed help with cooking and with delivering my uncle's medicine. The doctor was shocked to hear what she had been put through and said he would never refer anyone again. AND it turned out that my uncle's high sugar readings were caused by a change in medicine that my aunt had reported as the issue weeks earlier.

What my aunt and uncle were put through was incredibly upsetting. As I have said, my aunt is a very intelligent, tough woman. And though my uncle has been through many injuries, one which left him with a metal plate in his head, he is remains smart and funny and tough himself. They have each other and they have a neighborhood of friends and a few of us relatives who agreed to come stand in the yard and bear witness, if nothing else, if any more transpired.

It's harder when the elderly person is alone. A year ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article about an 87-year old woman who died of a massive heart attack shortly after receiving a letter from Adult Protective Services, saying she had been reported as not being able to care for herself. She had been having trouble making ends meet, since her decades- long job as an adjunct professor for Duquesne University had left her with no health or retirement benefits. But she was mortified by the letter and, many believe, simply died of weariness and the mortification.

It's not as if these Adult Protective Services letters suggest they are coming to help you. No, here is how my aunt's letter opens: "The purpose of this notice is to inform you of our intent to conduct an Adult Protective Service Investigation." Such an introduction to the seniors who receive them can seem so very threatening.

And they are threatening. There isn't a single senior who hasn't had a friend dragged off to a senior facility against their will. Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Phillip Morris has been chronicling the story of the 107-year-old Judge Jean Murrell Capers who has been forced into a senior living facility and into a guardianship, despite the fact that she sure seems capable of making her own decisions. He notes that there is a growing number of centenarians in the U.S., the vast majority of them women.

Today, I called in to check on my aunt.

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"Kicking butt," she said.

"Oh good, I said. "Then everything is back to normal."

For now.






REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY: Several Brief Personal Memories

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74

(NYT headline, August 30, 2013)

I have so many memories of Seamus Heaney, on the page and on the stage, and this is a record of them and not an analysis of his work, though I have spent much more time with his work, which which has meant and remains too much to me for me to talk about it much now. So for a few fun memories of the man instead and of course, from afar.

Circa 1979

The photo here is from the one time I met him, about 1979, when he came to read at Cleveland State. The Poetry Center Director was on leave and was coming to introduce him in the evening, but it was my job to see that he was picked up at the airport and delivered there the next morning and that he was fed and accompanied or left alone when he needed to be.

I had read his amazing book Field Work by then and a packet of poems handed out to students which contained his poem "Digging," which ever since has been rooted in my heart. I think the poem resonates with anyone from a working class background who steps out of that world and into academia or whatever world where people do not carry lunchboxes. It asks, "How do I stay faithful to that world I come from of hard physical work, to claim it and not be ashamed of it and yet do the now more mental work I am being trained to do?" Only the poem says more and better. It begins with a gun and ends with a pen, surely the best job of turning a sword into a plowshare that any poet has ever achieved in 31 lines, and certainly I got it without a lot of explication, as our Cleveland State students did, too, and they came out en masse to hear him at that evening reading-- as did half the Irish-American population of Cleveland and the writing and reading community of Cleveland.

But before the reading, there was dinner with a group of poets who took Heaney to The Parthenon, the old (and I do mean old, and now gone) Greek restaurant down the street from C.S.U. where the flaming sakanaki was the best I ever had and did not come with the waiter shouting "opa," just a flame and a huge squirt of lemon. We ordered lots of saganaki and retsina and rodidas and platters of wonderful lamb and moussaka. Heaney seemed to really be enjoying himself, even though he was very tired, especially when a wedding party in the next room started smashing plates, and he got up to watch.

After dinner, we sauntered the six blocks down the street, early for the reading and thank goodness because the aforementioned mass of students, Irish-Americans, and other citizens had filled and overflowed the lecture hall we had chosen. Security showed up, found us an even bigger lecture hall, and there was a parade through the building to it, and even then, people had to squeeze, sitting on steps and standing around the edge of the room. (And I sat there praying no fire marshal showed up.) It was such a damned fine reading, and if you have never heard Heaney read, please go to the two links I have posted above, or any link of Heaney reading. He has always been one to give very brief, but very meaningful intros to his poems, and my favorite story that he told was about going back to his grade school, where the nuns had prepared the children to recite, in chorus, his poem "Death of a Naturalist." He held his breath as they got closer and closer to the line,  "Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting," wondering what the nuns would have them do with that word, "farting"-- would they skip it?  Surely they would never let the children say it. And then it came: "Some sat/ Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads darting." He then read it to us with all its farting, with relish, already the king of language, long before his Nobel prize.

(More recently, about his poem "At a Potato Digging,"  he noted that a critic, "once described me (to my face) as 'laureate of the root vegetable.'")

But his best witticism came the next morning, when poet Bob McDonough drove him to the airport and groggily clutching coffee, he mentioned that he was tired to the bone, was giving something like 10 readings in 8 days or 8 readings in 10 days in 10 cities, in order to pay for a sports car, and we were the next to the last just one more to go.  Still he smiled and waved good-bye to Bob, saying, "Well, I am off to simulate real life." 

Circa 2000-2002

During these years, I was living in three cities: Findlay, Ohio (where my job was), St. Cloud, MN (where my sister struggled and wrestled with and defied and died of cancer), and Boston, MA (where my husband had taken a new job). At least once a month I was flying out of some way-off terminal of Logan Airport, and it seemed that nearly as often, Heaney was flying out there too. I never spoke to him, just nodded in recognition and in leaving him alone, and he nodded back.

One day, when he got a bagel and then boarded, I said to the women in the snack bar, "Do you know that that man you just waited on is a Nobel Prize winner?" They looked up and said with some real enthusiasm, "Oh, really? In what?"

"Poetry!" I said with the same enthusiasm, only to see their faces fall.

"Oh," they said in real disappointment. What would have thrilled them? Physics??


If the two airport workers didn't appreciate Heaney's presence in Boston, I think it is fair to say that that most Irish of U.S. cities, where he taught for over two decades, did appreciate him. (That is to say, Boston-- okay, really he taught in Cambridge, but we won't be splitting neighborhoods just now.) I moved there late
in 2002, after my sister's death, and I myself ran out to appreciate him whenever he was giving a reading, as he was one particularly memorable reading in Sanders Hall, along with several other poets (Jorie Graham, Robert Pinsky, et. al.), for what has always seemed a perpetual fundraiser to keep Grolier's Poetry Bookstore from going under. Fact is, the packed hall was mostly there to hear Heaney, so as the time approached, and we saw he wasn't there, a deep disappointment crept in. And then it was announced that he had had to make a sudden trip back to Ireland because the roof of his house was leaking or caved in or some such disaster, and as poet Julia Lisella said yesterday on Facebook, "I liked thinking about him choosing the roof over his family's head over the roof over ours there at the Sanders Theater waiting for him!" 

March 7, 2013

This past spring, I heard Heaney for the last time, though of course I didn't know it then. He seemed hale enough, as though fully recovered from his 2006 stroke. It was a wonderful reading because it wasn't really a reading but a "conversation," between Heaney and Derek Walcott, moderated by Roseanna Warren,  interspersed with their reading poems while seated in big comfortable chairs onstage. Heaney's voice was strong, as was the sense that he was, as always, as the N.Y.Times has said,
"consumed with morality." The podcast of this reading has been suddenly blocked from the AWP website, and I hope they make it available again soon because it was a
mighty moment, about which, as his own poem says:

... we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened. ("Clearances")

That's how I am feeling about Heaney this weekend.  There is a big open space where he once was. But look, in the clearances, he has left us all this, that keeps opening and opening: the poems, the translations, the essays, his asides and witticisms, the  music of language and languages, the strong sense that the poet is, in his own words, "...on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being.”