Many Ills, Constant Care, but Calling Her Own Shots

Verona Peters

January 16, 2012, By Matthew R. Warren
The New York Times

Verona Peters is clear: nursing homes are just not for her. Yes, she takes more than 300 pills a month and needs constant care for a litany of ailments: failing kidneys, high blood pressure, diabetes, congestive heart failure and a bout of diverticular bleeding. Yes, she undergoes dialysis, and the colostomy bag attached to her abdomen must be changed twice a week.

But she will stay far away from nursing homes because, she said, she finds them too stifling.

Sitting on a recliner in a cozy first-floor apartment in Peekskill, N.Y., recently, Ms. Peters, 67, said happily: “This is my home. I’m my own person. I watch TV until I feel like it, and I go to bed when I feel like it.”

Of course, she has the help of a visiting nurse, a home health aide and her family, Ms. Peters said, but she is living on her own terms, something that seemed out of reach after her health deteriorated.

Ms. Peters, a native of Jamaica, married and had a son, and the family lived in London for 12 years before moving to Brooklyn in 1983. Though life was never easy, she said, she and her husband worked hard to provide for their child. She found work as a cashier at McDonald’s and later at Walmart, and he as a chef at a senior center.

Her husband died of lung cancer in 2000, and her own health worsened. Her younger sister, a hospital housekeeper with a teenage daughter, could provide shelter but not the constant care Ms. Peters needed. Her son, a mail carrier, was taking care of a growing family. So at 62, Ms. Peters, who was receiving Medicaid, had to move into a nursing home.

Ms. Peters said she felt helpless, frustrated and out of place.

“I’d look out the window and I’d see people go, and you’re just sitting there,” she said. “You feel like you’re a prisoner.”

She said she hated the regimented schedule she had to follow and felt as if she had lost control of her life. “I was trapped like a caged animal,” she said. Ms. Peters stayed in the nursing home for a year until the staff referred her to Dominican Sisters, a home health agency that is an affiliate of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

Dominican Sisters made it possible for Ms. Peters to move into an apartment in her sister’s two-story home, arranging her transportation to and from the dialysis center and providing her with a weekly visiting nurse who prepares her medication, checks her blood pressure, listens to her heart and lungs, and inspects her feet to see if they are swollen, a symptom of any heart troubles.

Dominican Sisters also provides Ms. Peters with a home health aide who prepares her food and helps her bathe and dress, and maintains the apartment six days a week. Dominican Sisters also made sure Ms. Peters has an emergency alert button, which she wears on a string around her neck, so she can call 911 for assistance.

Ms. Peters, who had surgery for diverticulitis in December 2010, depends on her son, Michael Peters, 42, who visits her every evening, to change her colostomy bag.

“Sometimes it bursts on the side and I call Mikey at night,” Ms. Peters said. “He’s a great son.”

Ms. Peters’s monthly income is $797 in Social Security benefits and $25 in Supplemental Security Income. She also receives Medicare, in addition to Medicaid, and contributes $600 every month toward the mortgage on her sister’s house. Her son buys her groceries and helps her financially as much as he can, but with four children of his own, he is not able to cover all of his mother’s expenses.

In September, Ms. Peters fell $172.97 behind on her phone bill and $74.37 on her electric bill. Catholic Charities used $247.34 from the Neediest Cases Fund to pay her outstanding bills.

Ms. Peters says she is content, and her only wish is to spend as much time as possible with her family.

“I try not to worry; I take it one day at a time,” she said. “I would love to live a little longer, so I could see my grandchildren grow up.”