Archives for category: elder abuse

Getting Mike: Part Three

A.V. Walters

Mike sign

We are all, each of us, a bundle of talents and deficits. My sweet Rick would be the first to agree; he is continually amazed that a highly functional, over-educated adult, like me, cannot tell left from right, or measure anything with accuracy. The trick is, that for most of us, we focus on the talents we possess.

We completely fail at this when the object of our attention becomes a diagnosis, and not a person. A diagnosis can be an opportunity, or an excuse, depending upon how one wields it. In essence, a diagnosis regarding mental capacity gives us information about the nature (and maybe cause) of a deficit. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

A couple of decades ago, I worked as a coordinator for an Adult Literacy Program. We banged our heads against this very phenomenon, repeatedly. Students and tutors would blame their failures on learning disabilities diagnosed when the students were children, instead of looking for the work-around. Despite the educational failures of the past, we found that many of our students were highly motivated and, with individualized instructions, were able progress beyond everyone’s expectations. All too often, the diagnosis of a learning disability had quickly become the operative reality—an excuse for failure instead of a challenge for success.

I have mentioned in this series that my Uncle Mike was shortchanged by the educational system. He had speech impediments that, unrecognized and unaddressed, led teachers to believe that he was language impaired and uneducable. A second chance in his late teens gave him speech therapy—and language. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits but, armed with language, he presented a whole new package. Mike moved away before I was an adult, so I didn’t have much opportunity to get to know the “new” Mike, the one who could talk, until many years later.

Mike is highly literate. (His keen vision and ability to quickly read signs from a distance were a godsend while traveling with him, across the country.) He reads newspapers and follows current events. He is just as opinionated and informed as the rest of the family—which is saying a lot. He is funny and, in particular, gets situational humor. He has a great memory. But, because his speech is not perfect, many expect him to exhibit lower levels of performance. Mike hides behind these low expectations and, even if it means that he’s misjudged, never puts himself in a position where he will disappoint. Surely, sometimes he fails to “connect the dots,” but I never know if it’s capacity, or training. Mike has spent a lifetime fulfilling his diagnoses.

Not that there aren’t deficits. He has great difficulty measuring the motivations of others. Perhaps an early life without language meant that he could hide behind my grandmother’s skirts, and let her do the coping for him. This is especially true when, all too often, in his human interactions he was the victim of bullying and abuse. He doesn’t get arithmetic at all—and is at a total loss with budgeting and money. Beyond that, I’ve decided to judge Mike’s skills by first-hand experience, rather than by maligned expectations.

A decade ago Mike and I worked together to set him up in his first apartment. He was thrilled with it, with its humble furnishings and independence. We bought him a modular desk, (IKEA style) that required assembly. I took the lead—never pausing to read the directions. Mike and I chatted as I worked. About half way through, Mike expressed his reservations, “Alta, I don’t think that will work.” I was tempted to press on, but Mike got up off the couch and showed me that part of my assembly was backwards! (Did I mention that spatial skills are not my strong suit?) We both laughed so hard, we cried, and then finished the project, together.

Similarly, as we approached the end of our travels, I took a back road shortcut, up a steep hill in Hancock. It’s a winding road—I know it well and I took it at a good clip. We were nearly to the top when Mike cautiously inquired, “Is this a one-way street?” It was, and he was right to question what would have been reckless in two-way traffic. Mike gets it. We have to do a better job of “getting” Mike.

The point is, Mike has a far greater understanding about what goes on around him than we give him credit for. His homecoming can be a new beginning, for all of us. We can plan for successes, instead of failures, while providing safe opportunities for success. There are many wonderful possibilities here. Mike is a little intimidated by his return to real winters—but once his health is recovered, I think he will enjoy snow and season. Already, he is recounting childhood memories of winter in a favorable light.

There are decided advantages to small town living. My hometown, Copper Harbor, has about one hundred, year-round residents. Already, I am impressed with the welcome. Family members and friends are pulling together to outfit Mike with clothing and necessities for winter living. All of us are making plans for fun and community engagement as soon as Mike is on his feet. This is a seasonal town, if he wants, there are opportunities for work in the summer. My sister told the owners of a local resort that Mike was coming, and when we rolled into town, he was welcomed home, on their marquis! It brought tears to my eyes, and a ready smile to Mike’s face. Finally, we know that he is safe and loved. Finally, Mike has come home.

 

 

 

 

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Getting Mike: Part Two–

A.V. Walters–

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It was the Christmas storm, in New Mexico, that triggered our actions. That, and the fact we finally got Mike to give us an address.

Squalor is such an ugly word. So is elder-abuse. I try not to be judgmental. I know that every person has their own reasons for what they do, and that it doesn’t help if I overlay my own perspective. I think the facts should speak for themselves. You’re free to draw your own conclusions.

I had coordinated with Adult Protective Services before my arrival in New Mexico. I wanted to document conditions—and I wanted company out to the site—just in case. APS was concerned, too—they wanted me to coordinate with local law enforcement for “civil standby,” which would cover police presence, not only for the initial status check, but for the time it took to pack Mike’s belongings, and go. The county sheriff’s department had jurisdiction, but they reached out for additional back-up from the local police department that had previously been to the location. We were quite the parade. Mike was living in a remote trailer out in the high desert. We, (me and my entourage of law enforcement, totaling four vehicles), met down the road, and then pulled up to the trailer, together. To my shock, the police flanked the entry, hands on holsters, while the deputy pounded on the door. She, Mike’s “friend,” answered—of course, Mike was home.

She presented as a good-looking, if overly made-up, middle-aged woman. She wore one of those “stylish” track suits. You wouldn’t look twice if you passed her on the street. She called Mike to the door. He peered out at the collected entourage—slack-jawed and stunned. His clothing hung on him, his pants held up by a belt with a long tail that spoke to the enormous weight loss since I’d last seen him. He sported a Hard Rock Café t-shirt, several sizes too large, and stained with the kind of deep grime that screams poverty. His hair was clean, but long, and matted. His feet were wrapped in pressure bandages. Even that prelude didn’t prepare me for the inside of the trailer.

Mike’s eyes found me in the crowd and he relaxed, but just a little. I handed him the kitty carrier and told him these people had to come inside to see where he lived. I instructed him to put the kitty in the carrier, so that we wouldn’t scare her off. Unfortunately, the cat was already outside—Mike went out to try to find her, but we never saw her.

We took advantage of his search for Penny, to go into the trailer where Mike had been living for ten months. I knew that he mostly lived there alone. We knew from conversations with Mike that She “lived” there, in address only—mostly she spent the nights at her boyfriend’s apartment. Mike was proud that he “held down the fort” at the trailer. Every couple of weeks, he’d be taken to the boyfriend’s house, to clean up—and to do laundry. Sometimes, if weather was really severe, he’d spend the night at the boyfriend’s.

Getting a good look, inside the trailer, brought tears to my eyes. There was NO water, NO sanitation, NO power, and NO heat. An outdoor, propane, “patio heater” stood in the center of the main room, an empty propane tank, on its side, next to it. No matter, at least today was a warm day. Plastic gallon-jugs of water circled the heater—so they wouldn’t freeze at night. I knew, from Mike, that there was a generator outside that gave light, and access to a microwave oven, when there was fuel. Too often, there wasn’t any. The only significant furnishings were two “easy” chairs, one heavily worn and shabby, and the other in reasonable condition. It was no challenge to guess where Mike had been sleeping for the last 10 months.

The trailer was filthy, covered in the reddish grit that comes from the wind-blown desert of New Mexico. It was strewn with rags, or so I thought, until She told me they were Mike’s clothes. There was a plastic trash bag with his clean laundry—he had no dresser, not even boxes for his clothing. There was a short, folding shelf unit for his personal effects—his razor, miscellaneous papers and junk he’d collected. I had to step outside for a moment, overwhelmed. We’d clearly waited too long, and though he denied it, Mike had paid the price. I went and found Mike, wandering in the field, looking for the cat. “Mike, you have to come with me, now. You cannot stay here, any longer. It’s not safe or healthy.” He dropped his head. I hated to do it—Mike believed I was dashing his dreams.

You see, Mike saw this as his opportunity for homesteading. Apparently, She owned the property. She relieved him of his Social Security money each month, and fed him the fantasy that soon, they’d own the trailer, together, outright. Then, they could see about real “improvements.” Mike had spent the previous summer clearing the mesquite and tumbleweeds from the “yard.” He showed me the tree he’d planted, that he watered diligently from those plastic jugs. He was nothing if not patient, and proud.

By law, most livestock is treated better.

I’d brought plastic trash bags, to pack. I was concerned about the possibility of gathering up pests, and bringing them to my mother’s, where Mike would be living. I was optimistic on that front—even insects couldn’t thrive in these conditions. As I headed back in, to pack, one of the officers offered me gloves—those blue, nitrile gloves they wear at crime scenes to avoid contamination. I gratefully accepted them. Mostly, I just wanted to pack Mike into the car, and escape with just him. After all, anticipating the worst, I’d brought him new clothing. But, I know that there’s a danger in that kind of uprooting; you dismiss and abandon the person’s past—good and bad. Though the officers were quietly conversing amongst themselves—appalled at the conditions, I had to be mindful that this had been Mike’s home, and that he was proud of it. I packed what I could—sorting out the clothing that was too grimy, or threadbare, deciding what was worth hauling across the country.

The officers and APS admitted that this was a clear-cut case of abuse. But, they didn’t seem in favor of prosecution. Mike certainly would be unable, or unwilling, to cooperate—he believed this woman was his friend and, in any event, he was safely leaving the state. At the time, I had no interest in going down that road—I just wanted Mike healthy, safe, and away. One of the officers mentioned that this was not her first time doing this. She was outraged at any suggestion of abuse—after all, how could it be abusive if Mike agreed to it. And, she told the officers, She lived there, too! (Yeah, right. We all knew better.) Mike and I stopped in Roswell, on our way out of town, for a haircut and to close his bank account—he had almost nothing to show for his 44 years in New Mexico.

At last, we headed home. It’s a long trip, over 1,600 miles, to the UP. Mike was quiet at first, but finally, he began to chat—about the problems with his feet, about his cat, about the burritos she’d brought him to eat, from the convenience store where her current “boyfriend” works. Other than a feral cat, lost to him now, nothing he said about his life in the desert made me feel any better. It will take some time for Mike to adjust.

My niece, Jessica, who is a saint, arranged a medical appointment for the day after we arrived home. On the trip, Mike wouldn’t undo the bandages on his feet—he said the doctor (whom he hadn’t seen in a month, because She didn’t get him to his appointments) told him that only a doctor should wrap or re-wrap them. My mother and I were in the exam room when they removed the wrappings. We didn’t know what to say. His feet were grossly swollen and crusted—skin split from the swelling. There was evidence of frost-bite—a testament to his living conditions. His feet did not look human. The doctor took one look, and sent us to Emergency.

No thanks to his “friend” in New Mexico, Mike will be okay. His feet and legs will recover, if slowly. He now has loving caretakers who will see to it he eats properly, exercises, and gets needed medical care. They tell us he came very close to losing his feet—and maybe his life. We’ll deal with the blood clots for several months, yet—with blood thinners and proper pressure wraps. I arrived, apparently, just in time.

I’m still fuming. In front of Mike, I’m careful not to criticize his “friend.” I understand Stockholm Syndrome, and how a victim can attach to his oppressor, or worse, when the victim believes it’s his friend. I take a deep breath, and think of what he’s been through. Given what we now know about his physical condition, I wonder if I made the right decision not to prosecute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part One–

A.V. Walters–

It was inevitable that sooner or later we’d have to step up to the plate to resolve this. The only real resolution was to bring Mike home.

Mike is my uncle. He is congenitally disabled–starting with a birth condition that caused brain damage, which (very common in the day) was left untreated. He did not get the kind of early intervention and treatment mandated now, that would likely have left him far more capable. My grandmother shielded him–to protect him from the bullies that taunted and repeatedly injured him. He clearly has deficits–but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s damage, what’s training and–well, when Mike is manipulating for his own ends. The very fact that he knows when he can gain advantage, hedging with the truth, means there’s more capacity there than is generally acknowledged.

Mike’s childhood in Michigan was pretty harsh. Bullying is widely recognized today as an insidious and twisted problem–one that damages both the victim and the perpetrator. Schools have special programs. Teacher and students alike are encouraged to step forward to set things to rights. Not so in Mike’s day. School was a veritable gauntlet of hazards. My grandmother would rail, and the administration would shrug. They made it very clear that they would have preferred that he be institutionalized early on. They made it Mike’s fault.

My grandmother refused to give up. She researched high and low and found a special program to maximize the potential for kids like Mike. She wanted him to have the satisfaction and autonomy that comes with work. Like most parents on mentally challenged children, she didn’t want him to be a burden–and worried what would happen when she and my grandfather died. She found a great program in New Mexico–run by a dynamic and wonderful young man–who saw potential in all “his kids.” And the program was wonderful. First and foremost they were the ones to identify Mike’s speech impediment. (When I was little I could never understand him–most couldn’t, and soon, Mike talked less and less.) As a late teen, Mike received intensive speech therapy. It worked. Mike could suddenly communicate–and he was funny–even theatrical. My grandparents were vindicated. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits, but, in the absence of communication, everyone assumed that he was far less functional than he really was. Shame on the rest of us.

The relocation was a big step, but my grandparents uprooted themselves from generations of family and history in Michigan, to give Mike a chance. It was a tough move, loaded with sacrifices. Being from Michigan gives one a love of season and lakes and snow. New Mexico, especially the high Eastern Desert, takes a special kind of appreciation. Mike bloomed. The employment training offered wasn’t wonderful–hospital orderly, bus boy, laundry worker–but they were jobs, steady jobs, for kids who were never expected to have any prospects.

After a while, the program, and its continuing support fizzled. State administrations changed, budgets were cut. Finally there were really no special programs for Mike, just a handful of advocates–family and friends who’d come to know him. Still, he lived with his parents and had a regular job. My grandparents missed Michigan. Some people have only one great leap of faith in them–that leap brought them to New Mexico. There was no going back.

Mike’s biggest problem is his inability to discern the motivations of others. He’s a genial guy. Not many people will take the time to befriend a mentally disabled person. When they do, they are either saints, or, unfortunately, predators. It’s been a problem all of his life. The “friend” who got him into stereo equipment–soaked up his savings and, after he’d cashed his commission check, vanished from Mike’s life. There was a similar scenario with camera equipment. It’s a recurring theme, and so we’re leery.

When my grandparents passed, nobody knew what to do about Mike. Mike made it abundantly clear that he wanted to stay where he was. It was his community and he had a job. My parents would have taken him to Michigan, but Mike’s memories of Michigan are full of abuse and bullies. I would have taken him to Two Rock, but California was an unknown. Mike wanted to stay. We cut a deal. If Mike could stay and take care of business–work, pay bills, take care of himself, he could stay. Long distance monitoring isn’t great. My grandmother’s friend, Mary-Jo has helped. She would call and drop in on him. Mike calls my mother every week, on Sundays. There have been slips, but mostly Mike has kept up his end of the deal. Or so we thought.

A couple of years ago, Mike had a friend who suggested that they share an apartment, to save money. We were immediately suspicious. The “friend” wasn’t interested in communicating with us–more suspicions. But, Mike jumped the gun and moved anyway. We had no evidence of trouble, so we opted for a wait and watch plan. Things seemed to be fine. Mike continued to report to work. My grandmother’s friend watched like a hawk (the woman is a blessing). At one point, when Mike didn’t call, we called the local cops–for a “welfare” visit. He was fine. He was angry with us–he’d just missed a couple of calls because of problems with his phone. Still, we worried.

Last spring Mike was going in for cataract surgery. His roommate didn’t pick him up, so Mike gave the medicos Mary-Jo’s name and number. She retrieved him from the clinic. While he was there, the doctor noted a nasty infection in his leg. These have plagued him, off and on, all his life. He started up with regular treatments at a wound clinic. His legs were too bad to continue working. My mother offered to pick him up and take him to Michigan where he could have better care. Mary-Jo reported that Mike was unshaven and disheveled. We were alarmed that the roommate hadn’t followed through, and that he wasn’t taking care of himself.

Then, our mail was returned as “not at this address.” Again, we requested that the police visit. Too late. Mike was gone. For a while we lost contact, but still, we had no evidence of actual trouble. We had nothing to report and nowhere to report it to. We’d dropped the ball.

After a bit, Mike’s calls to my mother resumed. Yes, he’d been out of communication, but there were reasons. He’d moved to a place in the country–and there wasn’t great cell reception. He was clearing part of the property and planting trees. He had a kitten. He was so excited, it was hard to be angry. But, he had no address. The trailer where he was living was new, and there was no address yet. We’d have to be patient, there was so much to do. No address meant that we couldn’t send him cards and treats and care packages. These goodies had long sustained him–the occasional box of cookies, a needed winter coat, cards–with a little cash tucked in. These outreaches meant the world to Mike. How could he not give us an address? Well, the post office had to put it on the route and they’d have to install a mailbox, out on the highway. He confided that his friend was still angry that we’d called the police previously. Soon, soon, he’d have an address.

He sounded great. He sounded happier than he’d been in years. He was working outdoors, enjoying it and proud of the results of his labors. He was so thrilled that he had a kitten–all his own. We worried. He was also keeping in telephone contact with Mary-Jo, she didn’t like the situation, one bit, and she told him so. We talked about it and we decided to let the tenor of Mike’s voice be our guide. His voice was strong and he was happy.

His birthday rolled around. My mum called for his birthday. He was missing the goodies. What could she say? Well, Mike, when you give us your address and we’ll resume the packages and cards. Tough love. Over Christmas, Mike called my mother, elated that they’d put up the mail box. He gave her his new address! Before she’d send him any goodies my mother told Mike she would send him something and he’d have to send it back, a test of the new postal address. She did, and he did. So, she sent him belated birthday and Christmas packages.

Then, after Christmas, New Mexico had a storm. We read about it but we’re from Michigan. What’s the big deal about a little snow? It was a big deal. Mary-Jo called, frantic. Was Mike going to be okay? My mother gave her the address–explained that things were fine now according to Mike. Things weren’t fine. Mike likes it there, but we’ve learned that he lives in a trailer with no heat, no water, no sanitation. There’s power, but only when there’s fuel for a generator. Winter is a big deal under these conditions. Mary-Jo, determined detective that she is, advocate for this vulnerable son of her best friend–she found out just how grim. He told her he keeps warm under a thermal blanket, he and his kitty. The “roommate” doesn’t live there, she drops off groceries. He visits at her place every couple of weeks–to do laundry and have a shower. She cashes and keeps his Social Security checks.

I am on a mission. I have contacted and coordinated with Adult Protective Services. Mike’s going to have a visit.The police will escort us. If conditions are as Mary-Jo reports, Mike and his kitty are coming home to Michigan. He’s not going to like it, but he’s not getting a choice this time. I won’t post this until he is safe with me–I don’t want to jinx it this time. I just finished a two day, 1,600 mile drive to New Mexico. I thank all those who have coordinated to make Mike’s rescue possible, especially Mary-Jo. Tomorrow is the big day.