Program helps disabled start again

By Charles Menchaca

Linda Aschenbrenner loved her job at the Kraft Foods Plant in Champaign. All she had to do was stick her hand into boxes packaged with condiments and identify any leaks.

“It was such an easy job,” Aschenbrenner, 52, said. “It was great. I felt blessed.”

In 2002, Aschenbrenner lost her job, her home and her ability to take care of herself. She fell into a diabetic coma just a few days before her mother’s Aug. 27 birthday.

After a two-and-a-half year stay at the Champaign County Nursing Home, 1701 E. Main St., Urbana, Illinois’ Community Reintegration Program helped start her life again. The program aims to move eligible disabled persons out of nursing homes and into their own housing.

Between 2000 and 2003, 7,157 people nationwide moved out of long-term care facilities and into an independent living program, according to the Rehabilitation Services Administration. More than 1,000 Illinois residents have moved since the state’s reintegration program launched in 1998, according to the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living. PACE, Champaign County’s Center for Independent Living, has moved 90 nursing home residents into independent housing since 2000.

The program requires that its applicants are less than 60 years of age and have a disability, said Ann Ford, executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living.

Jack Delzell, reintegration specialist for PACE, said the most important part of the program is locating affordable, accessible housing. The average wait to move into independent housing is two to three months, Delzell said.

While nursing home rates are more than $100 a day, residents in a single-bedroom apartment would only have to pay $550 a month.

“Without a place to live, they can’t move out,” Delzell said.

Delzell helps people in the program apply for subsidized and public housing. The longest wait for a person in the program to find housing in Champaign County was eight months.

Before leaving the care facility, residents must pass a determination of needs assessment. The process ensures if a person can live independently or not and is scored after a series of tasks. A minimum score of 29 out of 90 is necessary. Only one or two have not passed, he said.

“Once they qualify with that score, we get the ball rolling with housing or whatever they need,” Delzell said.

Delzell said those in the program felt like they were in prison while in a nursing home.

“A lot of them say, ‘I’m free now,'” he said. “They regain their dignity.”

People who go back to living independently are also more likely to go back to work, Ford said.

Nursing homes can keep more funding if they retain people, Delzell said. The entry of 10 eligible people to the program would not affect a nursing home with more than 100 residents, he said.

“They’re not going to lose anything of it,” he said.

Ford said there are more than 12,000 people between the ages of 18 and 59 with disabilities in nursing homes.

“It’s inexcusable that we have 12 and 13,000 locked in nursing homes when they don’t need to be there,” she said.

Andrew Buffenbarger, administrator for the Champaign County Nursing Home, said there are no capacity requirements for the home. Funding for the home comes from the residents’ payment of the daily rate,” he said.

“We operate like a private business,” he said.

The home receives some funds from the Medicaid and Medicare programs so some residents can receive specialized services, he said.

Only one to two residents under the age of 60 have stayed in the nursing home since he started Aug. 1, Buffenbarger said. The home serves 200 people on average, he said.

Buffenbarger has not heard of the Community Reintegration Program but agrees that residents should have that option. Although the program provides a number of services, the amount of funding does not allow everyone to participate.

Delzell said PACE receives program funding for July 1 every year and it is usually gone by Oct. 1.

This year was no exception.

“We’ve exceeded our goal in two-and-a-half months,” he said.

The Community Reintegration Program is funded by a grant from the Department of Human Services. It is still considered a pilot project and receives a limited amount of money each year. No additional funding was given last year.

“If we had money throughout the year, we could easily move 30,” Delzell said.

Delzell was only allowed to move 14 residents this year, including Aschenbrenner. He said he has a waiting list of people every year ready to begin the program.

After Aschenbrenner arrived at Youman Place, a public housing site for elderly and disabled persons, she stopped thinking about her coma. The incident happened just down the street from where Aschenbrenner lives now. It’s something she’s comfortable with.

She now partakes in once-a-month potluck dinners. She can also be found reading in the presence of her white-and-gray Manx cat Cammie.

Aschenbrenner said that she gets out about as much as she did in the nursing home, but there is still a difference in living at Youman Place for her.

“It gave me the opportunity to continue on with my life,” she said.