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The Great Escape

Now in her own place, Arlene Johnson "couldn't have done it" without Nathan Bowman-Johnston. — Andrea Modica

Arlene Johnson had it relatively easy. Her finances were in good order. Her Social Security checks were still being deposited into her own bank account. Because she qualified for Medicaid, some of the money that would have gone to the nursing home could be used to help pay for the services she would need—home health aides, delivered meals, a personal emergency-response medical system.

First, she needed an apartment with wheelchair access. Bowman-Johnston located a vacant one-bedroom unit in a large senior complex with an elevator. He helped Johnson fill out the application, but after it was accepted, plenty of complications remained. Her son-in-law, a contractor, widened the bathroom door to accommodate her wheelchair. The carpeting was replaced with hardwood to make it easier to wheel herself around. Grab bars were installed in the bathroom.

While Johnson was in the nursing home, thieves stripped her old row house of many possessions. “Basically I had to start over,” she says. Bowman-Johnston helped round up furniture and kitchen supplies and arranged for delivery. A nurse at the nursing home bought Johnson a microwave.

Bowman-Johnston arranged for a home aide to help Johnson with chores. He also set up weekly visits from a nurse. Johnson was lucky enough to find a doctor who made house calls, although she would have to travel to her surgeon’s office for checkups. Medicaid would pay for all medically related travel. For other transportation, public service was available on demand for a small fee.

While making the arrangements, Bowman-Johnston stayed in close contact with Johnson. “We have to manage expectations,” he says. “What will you do in this situation—your aide doesn’t show up and there’s no food in the refrigerator? We have to make sure people are really motivated to do it.”

When Arlene Johnson finally unlocked the door of her new apartment, she remembers, “I felt like I was getting my life back again.”

Even after six months on her own, Johnson struggles sometimes. Using public transportation, especially if she has to shop at several stores, is difficult. She often asks her daughter to drive her to get groceries. “That’s not easy for me, being dependent on other people.” Standing on one leg when she has to cook for herself isn’t easy either.

And there have been unexpected crises. One morning the fire alarm in the building went off—a false alarm, as it happened. But for a panicked moment she wasn’t sure if the fire was real and whether she could get out on her own.

“You do get frustrated at times. You pray a lot,” she says. “You have to be patient. But you also have to be very, very determined.”

Peter Jaret lives in Petaluma, Calif.

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