New program aids vulnerable elders and caregivers

Mystic Hundertmark's body had turned on her.

The good guys, the immune cells, had switched sides and crept near her nervous system. They attacked and left the 40-year-old woman wheelchair-bound, unable to jump in and out of bed, shower and go to the bathroom without the help of her mom, dad or three children.

Complete and total reliance can strain even the closet of relationships, tugging at the bond between parent and child. A new Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland program aims to strengthen Hundertmark's tie with her caregivers by providing comprehensive case management for caregivers and to vulnerable individuals age 50 and older.

The Maryland Home and Community Care Foundation awarded the nonprofit a $500,000, 18-month grant to launch SERVE, which stands for Services, Education and Resources for abused and Vulnerable Elders, according to SERVE regional director Katie Cashman. The program launched in July, but took a few cases early.

From stopping a family member from financially exploiting an elder to helping caregivers find nursing homes for a loved one in need to halting sexual abuse, to court accompaniment and advocacy, SERVE's mission has a wide range. The organization leaves the definition of "vulnerable" broad on purpose, allowing it to perform a range of preventative care services, according to Tracey Ridgell, SERVE case manager for Carroll and Northern Baltimore County.

The program spans six jurisdictions: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, and Baltimore City. SERVE, which launched in July, has six active and one closed case in Carroll County.

"Our elderly population is growing so there is a huge, huge need for advocacy for elders," Ridgell said.

More than 34 percent of Carroll County is 50 or older, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.

While Hundertmark is only 40 years old, it was her caregivers - her parents, Rose and George Brundage - who turned to SERVE for help.

Their daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the spring of 1999, but as the disease continued to wage war on her body, she lost her self-reliance, according to Ridgell. This forced her to move into her parents' Woodbine home four years ago and to share the four-bedroom house with Hundertmark's two daughters, sister and her two daughters, mom and dad.

"I love my parents, and I love being home," Hundertmark said, "but me having MS is very stressful and very hard on them physically and mentally. ... [It became] hard being around each other, speaking to one another."

"There was a lot of frustration on both ends," Ridgell said.

That's because Hundertmark couldn't be that mother to her children anymore or that daughter to her parents, Ridgell said.

Rose and George Brundage had been on the hunt for a nursing home for their daughter to live for several years. The couple was getting old, developing health ailments of their own and yearning to know their daughter would have a safe place to call home as their older age would soon prohibit them from giving Hundertmark the constant care she requires.

Frustration with Medicaid rules and the unavailability of beds had left the family worn out and on edge, Ridgell said. They were SERVE's first open case, as Ridgell scheduled appointment after appointment with nursing homes.

On Tuesday, Hundertmark learned she'd been accepted, pending a medical examination, to Golden Living in Westminster; the case is still open because she hasn't moved in yet.

Hundertmark sat at a long table at West End Place, a medical adult day services center in Westminster, Thursday with Ridgell, the lady who made it happen, as the two recalled the lengthy process.

Ridgell's eyes began to well: "I get emotional about Mystic's case," she said.

There's another case, another story, that tears at Ridgell's heartstrings.

Hilda Van Fossen asked about Ridgell's daughters Thursday afternoon. Then Van Fossen made sure her own medication and doctor's appointments were in order and later said she enjoyed her new home. On Van Fossen's exit from the room in West End Place, she gave Ridgell a big hug, an affirmation of the pair's close relationship.

The two have known each other for about three years, since Ridgell started her work at West End Place. But in June, Ridgell started grocery shopping once a week with Van Fossen, taking her to doctor's appointments and hunting for an open room in an assisted living home.

That's because the 74-year-old woman with a mild developmental disability was facing eviction by several family members, Ridgell said. Van Fossen's phone had been shut off, and soon, the electricity would follow suit, according to Ridgell.

Per protocol, Ridgell performed a psychosocial assessment. Typically, a registered nurse would do a medical evaluation, but Van Fossen already had one done and on file before she started attending West End Place.

It was decided that Van Fossen needed to find a room in an assisted living home.

"We really had to act because it was either that or a homeless shelter," Ridgell said.

About two months later, Van Fossen is happily settled into her new home. She is SERVE's first closed case in Carroll County, of which the organization hopes to have many more.

"She's not considered vulnerable anymore," Ridgell said, "and that's the point of SERVE: helping vulnerable adults at some sort of risk."