Playing With Pieces Of Old Folks' Lives


This is what's left of the life Helen Nieberding once knew: a gorgeous mahogany dining room set, an antique sofa, a Chinese Chippendale table, a collection of etched stemware.

From a whole houseful of beautiful things she chose these few to take with her when she moved 3 1/2 years ago to Pinewood Gardens, a public housing apartment complex for senior citizens in Glen Burnie.

Nothing more would fit in the tiny, 16-by-24 foot efficiency unit, which consists of a small narrow kitchen, a bathroom and one decent-sized room. Indeed, there was only one way to arrange even this much furniture in such a small space and have it look right. "When I moved in here, everything had a place," Mrs. Nieberding says -- the sofa on that wall, the dining room china closet here, the buffet there.

It was perfect.

Then last month she got a call from the Anne Arundel County Housing Authority, which manages the federally subsidized units, saying it was time to paint her apartment. But when the workmen showed up a few days later, they didn't just paint. They ripped down the wall between the kitchen and the living area and built a new wall across the middle of the apartment.

In the universal scheme of things, this might not seem like a very big deal. The Housing Authority certainly didn't think it was, judging by the way it sprung these changes on Mrs. Nieberding and the 95 other Pinewood tenants.

But when you're 78 years old, tired of fighting battles and all you want is to live out your years in peace, it's more than a big deal when some bureaucrat decides to change the only thing you have left. These people feel as though their world has been torn apart. And considering that the world, for them, has been reduced to a 384-square foot space, that's exactly what has happened.

The Housing Authority might as well have cut out Mrs. Nieberding's heart as change her apartment so her dining room set won't fit. "I look at that table and I still see my family gathered all around," she says. "I don't have anything. What's here is my life. I love it and I want it."

Why shouldn't she be able to keep it? Housing Authority officials have their reasons, but they aren't very convincing.

The idea of creating a separate bedroom by installing a new wall across the living area makes some sense, but only for new residents who can plan to bring furnishings that will fit this floor plan. The authority never stopped to think that for existing residents, it could be a nightmare.

What's Mrs. Nieberding supposed to do with her sofa? It can't go on the wall where she used to have it, because that space is now a walkway.

Where's Betty Layden supposed to put her drop-leaf table and hutch? Her new wall gave her a bigger bedroom, which she doesn't need, and a smaller living area with no room for dining room furniture.

Since Mildred Pelkey, a former senior citizens center director, took the matter to court, the Housing Authority has stopped insisting that each apartment have this new wall. And it has agreed to take out the walls it has already put up if people object to them that much.

But the kitchen wall has to come down, the authority insists -- a change residents despise because the kitchen will look like it's part of the living room. Why does it have to come down? Because, the Housing Authority says, it won't be able to install new cabinets as long as it's in place.

But the kitchen doorway measures three feet, the same width as the door to the apartment. If they can get the cabinets in one, they can get them in the other.

The kitchens are too narrow for people in wheelchairs, the authority adds. But people in wheelchairs don't live in the garden apartments, which are two-story buildings with no elevators.

All the same, the authority says, some people may use a walker in their apartments, and it's easier for them if the wall is gone. But if there are a few cases like that, couldn't the authority remove those walls and leave everybody else's alone?

The Pinewood Gardens apartments are 20 years old. They need improvements. Whether this wall business constitutes an improvement is a matter of opinion, however. For the majority of residents, it qualifies more as major trauma.

Even if the changes were absolutely necessary, the Housing Authority could have handled the matter with a lot more sensitivity.

Housing officials surely realize that older people are resistant to change and upset by disruptions. It's inconsiderate to tell them them their apartments are being painted, then have workers appear two days later to move all their furniture and tear down the walls.

The officials insist that information about the remodeling has been available since spring, but the fact is residents didn't know what was coming. The authority didn't do a very good job of making sure they understood.

Perhaps the authority's biggest transgression was simply the casualness with which it treated the residents' objections. Mrs. Pelkey says she was told to "be creative" about redesigning her apartment. Others said they were told to go out and buy new furniture to fit their new layouts. That's not just thoughtless; it's 00 stupid.

Obviously, if these elderly people had the money to buy new furniture, they wouldn't be living at Pinewood Gardens. (See related letter.)

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Ann Arundel County.

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