Originally published in the AARP Bulletin.
BLANCHE BELL, TO HEAR HER FAMILY TELL IT, had the determination of a bulldog—from studying physics at the University of Michigan in the 1940s because it was the toughest major offered to presiding over a family of six. “She was only 4-foot-11, but she was larger than life,” says her son Steve.
So when Bell was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) early this year at 79, she had a plan: to keep her apartment at Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community in Charleston, S.C., using a motorized wheelchair and hiring aides to assist with her personal care. “She knew her mind was fine and it would be possible for her to control her own life with people helping her,” says her attorney, Harriet McBryde Johnson.
Bell’s landlord, however, had other ideas. Last June, Bishop Gadsden, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) affiliated with the Episcopal Church, gave Bell one month to vacate her apartment and move into its on-campus nursing home—or face eviction and forfeiture of her $161,000 entrance fee. Bishop Gadsden reminded Bell that she had signed a contract giving it full power to transfer her into assisted living or skilled nursing as her health deteriorated.
Bill Trawick, Bishop Gadsden’s executive director, says that applicants are told about the policy and are “very informed consumers.” He insists that Bishop Gadsden’s ability to control such medical decisions is best for the residents’ health and safety—and essential to the institution’s bottom line.
In July, Bell sued Bishop Gadsden, arguing that a forced transfer would violate both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although Bell agreed to Bishop Gadsden’s rules five years ago, her lawyers say the contract was discriminatory and therefore unenforceable. “You can’t sign away your civil rights,” says AARP’s Susan Ann Silverstein, who is co-counsel in the case.
Bell’s attorneys succeeded in staving off the eviction until she died Aug. 17. Since then, her sons have decided to keep the suit alive. “They wanted to continue what their mother started,” Johnson says.
The case, should it reach the courtroom, will raise an important legal issue: whether CCRCs like Bishop Gadsden may unilaterally transfer residents into more restrictive settings. So far there have been few challenges to such policies, which are common in the industry.
But as CCRCs start admitting Baby Boomers—who grew up with the civil rights and disability rights movements—cases like Bell’s are likely to multiply.”Ultimately, the question of where we live and what medical care we receive is at the heart of personal autonomy,” says Michael Allen, a lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “We’ve just seen the very beginning of the struggle to stay in place.”