Today is the 22nd anniversary of World AIDS Day, and Robert Franke, 77, can attest that the stigma attached to AIDS and HIV remains strong.
A retired college provost and former minister confronting a host of medical problems, Franke moved from Michigan to Little Rock, Ark., in 2009 to be closer to his daughter, Sara Bowling.
Together they picked out an upscale assisted living facility, Fox Ridge, close to Bowling's home. Before Franke moved in, Bowling says she disclosed in admissions paperwork that her father has HIV. Franke spent one night in the facility before Bowling received a phone call from a Fox Ridge employee, asking her to please drop by.
"The administrator and the head nurse started to cry," Bowling, 46, recalls of her visit. "They said they were really sorry, but we don't take people with HIV. They said, 'We don't know how to tell you this, but your father can't stay here.' "
Bowling and Franke filed a discrimination claim against Fox Ridge in U.S. District Court. The company settled the lawsuit in September, following an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the case with an argument that it ejected Franke in a bid to comply with an Arkansas health care law.
"We really don't comment on any applicant's, or former resident's, situation," Fox Ridge corporate counsel Susan Coleman says when asked about Franke. "We remain committed to quality service and care, and strict adherence to any applicable laws."
HIV senior population grows
Bowling says she initially didn't tell her father why she spirited him out of the assisted living facility's rear entrance in a wheelchair during an evening rainstorm, or why she had to put him up in her house, where he ended up staying for two months. Out of concern for Franke's well-being, Bowling waited till the next day to tell her dad — who she says has mild dementia affecting his short-term memory — the real reason behind his hurried change of venue.
"I'm sort of over it now," says Franke, "but at the time I was sort of outraged, I thought it was a terrible situation and I didn't deserve it, and they didn't have the right to do it."
A classically trained pianist, master gardener and an avid reader, Franke has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Texas and a master's of divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School, in Chicago. He also was provost at Central Michigan University.
After his removal from Fox Ridge and brief stay with his daughter, Franke moved into another Little Rock assisted living center where he has been for more than a year. "I like it and I like the people," he observes.
"They treat me well, they leave me alone, they don't bug me with this type of thing [HIV discrimination], which was really absurd."
"Seniors with HIV is a population that's actually growing," says Franke's attorney, Scott Schoettes. "Long-term care providers are kind of dealing with this for the first time, and they're woefully unprepared." A member of Lambda Legal, a national organization that focuses on the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and those with HIV, Schoettes says Franke and Bowling are pleased with the undisclosed settlement they received from Fox Ridge.
"They believe that by bringing this lawsuit, this type of discrimination is less likely to happen in the future," Schoettes says.
Franke agrees — up to a point. "Although we're setting precedent left and right that you can't get away with it," he says, "I don't think we've seen the end of it."
Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.