Apr 142016
 
Back where I belong.

Huntington Manor assisted living in Poway, California.

I recently returned to Huntington Manor assisted living after spending 15 months at a much larger, more expensive facility which I will refer to as “The Other Place.” People have wondered why I came back to Huntington Manor and, if I like it better here, why did I move in the first place? These are good questions and my answers may interest you.

Huntington Manor is a 27-bed assisted living facility located on the outskirts of Poway, California. My wife and I moved here in the spring of 2012 because it was the only place we could find that would accept my overhead lift system and was priced low enough that we could afford two rooms. My wife died a few months later but I remained here for another two years. I liked the location, had become friends with the owner, had gotten to know the staff well and enjoyed working on their website and blog.

Is this all there is?

My family felt that I was not taking advantage of some of the extra amenities that were available in larger facilities. So every once in a while I would check out a few of them, however I always got the same answer, “Sorry, but we can’t take care of someone as disabled as you and we definitely don’t want your overhead lifts in our facility.”

One day I was told about a place near the coast that might accept my physical requirements and my lifts so I checked them out. Like the other large facilities, they promised an extensive activities program, restaurant–style dining, frequent excursions, and several common areas where residents could mingle. When I asked about my overhead lifts, they said they would have to check it out with “corporate.” At the time I didn’t know exactly what that meant but I certainly do now. After several weeks they told me I was approved. But could I afford to live there?

Large assisted living facility

Could I afford to live this large?

Sticker shock.

Do you ever see those reports about assisted living that show the average cost by state and think “that’s not so bad.” It wouldn’t be if those were the actual costs, but sadly they are not. When the larger facilities publish costs or give them out over the telephone they are quoting the base rate for a room and the most standard care level available. (Smaller facilities are less likely to use this tactic.) There are very few people entering assisted living who could live with that amount of care. If you have difficulty transferring or walking or keeping track of appointments and medicines or dressing or feeding yourself, you will pay a lot more. The way it works is the facility will do an “assessment” and assign points for each type of care you need. Would you like help taking a shower? Do you have difficulty cutting meat? Do you have other bathroom issues? Based on the number of points, they will assess you an additional daily rate. In my case, the basic charge for the room was $140 per day, but the added charge for providing me assistance was $80 per day. That meant I would be paying $6600 per month for those months with 30 days — much more than I was paying at Huntington Manor. Nevertheless, they were advertising so many extra services that I felt I should try it out.

Corporate greed trumps senior need.

If I had known what was going on behind the scenes, I would have made a different decision. I had been given the standard story –a married couple started this chain of facilities out of a desire to create lodging for seniors that felt more like homes and less like hospitals. This was true, and from the stories I heard from people who had worked there for many years, life used to be very good for both the staff and the residents. But then came the economic downturns and the big corporations smelled blood in the water. Today The Other Place is owned by a real estate investment trust (REIT) that packaged several hundred senior living facilities together and offers shares to investors. They have no interest in the business or the residents — but they certainly worry about their shareholders. They contract with large property management corporations to run each of the facilities as profitably as possible. How do you get more profits? You cut costs and raise rates.

I experienced the cost-cutting first. This showed up in the number and quality of the activities offered, the quality of the food, and the number of caregivers available.

Activities – not my idea of good times.

The main reason my family wanted me to move to a large facility was for the activities. Even before the cost-cutting, I discovered that most of the activities were designed around the needs of people who were much older and especially for those who were suffering from early stages of memory loss. I’m sure my children picture me have a lively conversations, going to movies, developing close friendships, etc. Sadly, that did not turn out to be the case. Most of the activities focused on either playing bingo, or playing simple word games. There were crafts every couple of weeks but they were usually at the level of early elementary school. I understand that I was not the target audience for their program. Assisted living activities programs are mostly for people who are over the age of 80, female and with some form of cognitive difficulties.

The one program I truly enjoyed was the music. They brought in professional musicians who performed and encouraged residents to join in singing. Of course that cost money and it was one of the the first programs to be affected by budget cuts. The number of acts was cut in half and some performers just quit coming because the pay was too low. There were monthly excursions and weekly trips to local restaurants but I preferred my wheelchair and public transit for the independence it gave me. Besides, many of the residents needed to be watched carefully, so any trips away from the facility required at least one caregiver for every two residents to make sure no one wandered off. This limited the number of participants to about ten residents.

Dining

I had heard stories about the elegant dinners they used to serve, and you still see pictures of food from those events posted on their website. I never saw any personally however because by the time I arrived all menus were being planned from the central headquarters back east and the local chef was given almost no authority to change the menu or improve the quality of food being offered. In fact, the menus were printed a month in advance and shipped to the facility to be displayed for each meal. After a few weeks, everything seemed to taste the same. That was because many of the foods were based on the same packaged ingredients. For example soups were made from one of four stock bases. Very few items were cut from scratch in the kitchen.

No turkey loafing at Huntington Manor.

No turkey loafing at Huntington Manor.

At Huntington Manor, the first step in making chicken soup is to boil some chicken. At The Other Place, most turkey or ham dinners come from deli loafs of turkey or ham. Here, they come from turkeys and hams.

Cuts in caregiving.

Perhaps the saddest result of corporate greed is what happened to the caregivers and their relationships with residents. When I arrived there were seven or eight caregivers on duty during the daytime hours. They were charged with caring for approximately 70 residents. By the time I left, many days there were only five caregivers for the same number of residents. If you are doing the math you’ll see this works out to one caregiver for every 14 residents. Subtract from that the several hours per day they must spend on other tasks such as working in the dining room and there is obviously little time to get to know a resident well. By contrast, at Huntington Manor we have five caregivers on duty during the daytime for 27 residents – – an average of about one caregiver for every five residents. At night, the contrast is even more dramatic. The Other Place has two caregivers on duty at night for all 70 residents. Huntington Manor has three on duty for 27 residents.

At both facilities, the people who actually provide the care are competent and hard-working. Many of them truly enjoy what they do and like to help people. Because the pay levels are so low they typically work two or more jobs to support their families. They deserve our respect. Unfortunately many of the residents have personality disorders that go along with dementia, making them difficult to care for. In my four years of living in facilities, I have never experienced any kind of abuse but I have certainly seen caregivers on the receiving end of it.

Where does the payroll go?

Something else that comes along with bloated corporate ownership is bloated staff. It’s wasteful but may be necessary to keep up with the record-keeping and regulatory demands of a big corporation. Where I am now we have four staff who are seldom involved in direct patient care: the owner, the administrator, the cleaning person and the gardener. At The Other Place most of the common areas are filled with offices. There is the executive director plus people in charge of the business office, sales, assisted living, intermediate memory care, health services, activities, food service, maintenance, and reception. Many of these have their own staff. Every two months or so a carload of impeccably dressed executives descends on the managers and hovers over them making sure every procedure is carried out according to the corporate book. I’m sure the regional managers fly back to headquarters every so often for some of the same treatment. Almost lost from sight are the five or so caregivers themselves.

The big price increase.

When I was negotiating the price for The Other Place, I was given a chart showing price increases during the past several years. They averaged about 2% which made me feel comfortable that I could manage them. After a year I got my first actual price increase. It was just under 10%! Doing some investigating, I learned that a dollar increase of about the same amount was likely for the following year. There was no way I could afford to live here unless I changed to one of the smallest rooms. To do that I would need to reinstall my overhead lifts – an expense of about $2000 and adjust to a cramped lifestyle and wait for the next round of cost cutting and price increases. It so happened that I heard from Huntington Manor the next day asking if I would like to return. I really didn’t have to think twice. So now I am back here and far happier. I miss my favorite caregiver at The Other Place but I am back with good friends that I had here before. If only I had known all of this beforehand, it would have saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

Conclusion:

Despite my experience, I am not recommending people avoid larger facilities. For their target audience, they are providing the services those people seek and can afford to pay for. If someone has Alzheimer’s disease, it could be a very good choice. However, for those of us whose challenge is mostly loss of mobility, we may need to be more creative in our selection process. The big chains now control the largest portion of assisted living beds, but there are many intermediate and small privately owned facilities. Here in California, six-bed Residential Care For the Elderly (RCFE) properties are everywhere. They are less strictly regulated and can offer personally tailored types of care sometimes at significantly less cost. I was unable to find one that could meet my needs, but not many people are as mobility-challenged as I am. If you are facing the prospect of needing more care then you can receive at home, don’t be discouraged. During these past four years the good moments have far outweighed the bad and I’m looking forward to more.

Mike Shirk

Feb 252016
 
On the left, the way we were in 1996. On the right, with some of my grandchildren and great grandchildren, late last year.

On the left, the way we were in 1996. On the right, with some of my grandchildren and great grandchildren, late last year.

Normally, my “Chronicles of Disability” consists of annual reports on the changes in my health over the previous 12 months. I forgot to post a report for the year 2014, but perhaps it’s just as well because there were very few changes – – just more weakness in general. So now we come to this major milestone. It has been 20 years since I was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis (IBM). This rare muscle wasting disease is described as “slowly progressing”. That may be true one month to the next or even one year to the next. But when the person I was in 1996 is compared to who I am today, the contrast is jaw-dropping.

Twenty years ago I didn’t think there was much wrong with me. Yes I was slowing down in my running, and my golf shots seemed to be getting shorter, and I did fall once in a while, so what? I was 55 years old, just normal aging? I could still hike mountain trails, jog (slowly), show up for work every morning, work around the house, go to parties with my wife, take long driving vacations. Life was very good.

Now, I very nearly meet the criteria of a quadriplegic. I can’t move either of my legs or my left arm. I can only raise my right arm a few inches above my waist. I cannot stand, walk, or transfer without the aid of an overhead lift system and a caregiver. This will probably be the last year that I am able to continue feeding myself, unless the new drug (BYM338) gets released and actually works. My fingers don’t bend and my speech is getting quite weak. This is making my writing avocation more challenging and I may need to give it up within a year or so. Unrelated to my disease, but definitely affecting my life, my wife died of her own rare muscle illness in 2012.

My current home features the ultimate "open floor plan". My wheelchair loves it.

My current home features the ultimate “open floor plan”. My wheelchair loves it.

At the time of my initial diagnosis, we were living in a two-story four-bedroom home overlooking the mountains of southern California and a little slice of the Pacific Ocean. Today I am living in 250 square feet in an assisted living facility. The room is comfortable, the view isn’t bad (mostly of an ancient olive grove), the caregivers are friendly and helpful, and the food is very good. My days are spent doing what writing I can, either for Huntington Manor or for my Life Disabled blog, but that work is getting more difficult every day. So instead I am catching up on a lot of movies and television and doing a little reading. I also like to take my wheelchair out on long jaunts through the countryside and down to the local business district of Poway. Huntington Manor is launching a major renovation of the facility and I have been promised one of the beautiful new rooms that will overlook the garden and the hills beyond. That is enough to keep me motivated to stick around until the project is finished in 2017.

When I first started this blog, and when I wrote “Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled” I suggested that the newly diagnosed read about my experiences to be properly prepared for what lies ahead. Now with a new treatment on the horizon, it is quite likely they may never have to experience this severe of a decline.

I have reposted many of the pictures and captions from the past 20 years. I think they tell an interesting story about the effects IBM has had on one person’s life. As you’ll see, I have remained generally happy and hopeful throughout that time, but I must admit that my general mood has been declining. Recently, I saw a neurologist who lowered my expectations for the new drug by pointing out that it would not be of any use for the muscles that were already dead and that, in my case, most of the muscles are completely destroyed. The most I can hope for is maintaining the minimal capabilities I have now.

By the way, one of the special pleasures I get these days is when someone purchases my book. It’s available on Amazon — just click on the link on this page — seven dollars for paperback and three dollars for the Kindle edition, or free if you are using Kindle Unlimited.

Nov 192015
 

My new/old home is calling me back.

My new/old home is calling me back.

My former assisted-living facility has been tugging at my emotions for some time. Then my current facility gave me a swift kick in the wallet. So I am moving back to Huntington Manor in Poway, the place that originally welcomed my wife and me with all of our disabilities, where I was living when she died and just a mile from where her ashes are buried. Compared to my current facility, it is one fourth the size, 30 miles further inland, and more country then luxury. But it is also much closer to my eldest daughter and many of my friends, more flexible in the kind and amount of care provided and surrounded by the mountains and trails I have enjoyed for so much of my life. So when I received the letter from Sunrise telling me my rates were being raised by nearly 10%, the message was clear: “Go!”

I can’t have my old room back with its gorgeous view, but they are doing all they can to make me comfortable in a different arrangement. I will be occupying two rooms that were recently constructed as part of an overall improvement project. (You can see them in the background of the photograph.) In a few weeks, once I am settled, I will share some of the insights I have gained into the big business side of assisted living. One little preview – – instead of a family–owned chain of facilities, I have actually been living in a real estate investment trust, VENTAS, comprising many hundreds of properties, each being run by property management firms, with the primary emphasis on returns to investors. Exactly what that means to the residents, and the hard-working caregivers who serve them, will be the subject of my next blog post.

Aug 312015
 

The interest level and expectations surrounding BYM338 are evidenced here.

The interest level and expectations surrounding BYM338 are evidenced here.

All of us with inclusion body myositis are waiting anxiously for some sign of results from the Novartis BYM338 trials. After all, until now there has been no proven treatment available for this relentlessly progressive muscle wasting illness. The critical stage III worldwide trial is wrapping up later this year and so far all we have are anecdotal remarks from participants. Of course they can only guess because the study is blind, with a fourth of the participants getting a placebo and another fourth getting a dose that is very low. The good news is that some people are reporting results that to them seem significant enough they believe they must be getting either the middle or highest dose and it is working.

However there are places we can look to find real data. For example, a study report published in Current Rheumatology Reports and made available through Springer.com contains some actual results from the phase IIa trial on patients. This was a small trial of 14 participants and of them 11 received the drug. It states that the participants who received the drug were given a dose of 30 mg per kilogram of body weight in a single infusion. The results were then measured at two months and again at three months. After two months, the average person receiving the drug gained about 7 percent of thigh muscle volume. Walking distance in six minutes was measured another month later and the average drug recipient gained 15 percent in walking speed. Both results were statistically significant. The dose was three times greater than the maximum dose being used in the current stage IIb/III dose-finding trial, (although it was only a single dose while the trial consists of monthly doses.) According to the Brookings institute, these results were what prompted the FDA to grant Breakthrough Status to BYM338.

The results of an early study of BYM338 are reported here.

The results of an early study of BYM338 are reported here.

Another place we can look to obtain hints about the success of BYM338 is in the other trials that Novartis has been conducting. The ClinicalTrials.gov website lists eight studies that have been completed or are ongoing plus one that was withdrawn. Among the conditions for which the drug is being tested are IBM, sarcopenia, and cachexia related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and pancreatic cancer. Sarcopenia is the skeletal muscle wasting that occurs in most people beginning at age 30 and accelerates as we age. It is classified as an illness when the muscle wasting exceeds two standard deviations from the norm. Cachexia is the wasting of muscle plus fat that results from many serious illnesses. Considering the high cost of conducting all these trials, it is clear that Novartis has high hopes for the drug. As do we!

Questions:

1. In the Novartis quarterly report presentation for Q2 of 2015 they continue to state that FDA submission of BYM338 for sporadic inclusion body myositis will be in 2016. My physician was told by Novartis that they were accepting no requests for compassionate use for this drug prior to FDA approval. Might that policy change once the submission to FDA has been made? (Compassionate use, also called extended use, is an FDA program to make drugs available to seriously ill patients when no other medication is available. FDA states that compassionate use is available for drugs that have not been formally approved nor proven effective, so it is a mystery why Novartis has chosen to withhold this particular drug from the program.)

2. As I understand the mode of action of BYM338, it prevents myostatin from signaling muscle cells to stop growing. This allows the cells to resume their normal process of regeneration (myogenesis). Although it doesn’t cure the IBM, it hopefully will allow the body to build new muscle cells as fast or faster than IBM destroys them. Of interest to those of us where the disease process has resulted in near paralysis, how much muscle fiber must be remaining for myogenesis to take place?

3. The trial with mechanically ventilated patients was withdrawn. Does this mean there was some side effect related to mechanical ventilation? Unfortunately, some IBM patients may become too weak to breathe without mechanical assistance.

Jul 182015
 
"Point Pinos" is one of two of my paintings (along with one of my wife's) hanging in the permanent art collection of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

“Point Pinos” is one of two of my paintings (along with one of my wife’s) hanging in the permanent art collection of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Ten years before this blog began, and several years before the term “blogging” came into general use, IBM had taken my life in a new direction. Besides forcing me to give up a career as a writer and advertising agency owner, it had herded me into a new career as a watercolor artist. Within months of closing the doors to my ad agency, I was opening books on painting techniques, design theory and color harmony. I joined an outdoor painting group, then became a member of the San Diego Watercolor Society – one of the largest groups of its kind in the world – and soon became a board member and eventually president.

This was   my booth at the Hotel Intercontinental in 2003 for The Myositis Association national conference.

This was my booth at the Hotel Intercontinental in 2003 for The Myositis Association national conference.

This new avocation gave me such pleasure and added so much meaning to my life that I had to share the news. I talked to members of our local Myositis Association (TMA) support group and they encouraged me to take my message to the national conference that was coming up in Houston. This was in 2003. The organizers of the conference also encouraged me and gave me a booth where I could display several paintings and hand out literature.

 "Monterey Bay" (15 " x 22 ") will be auctioned  at the 2015 national conference of the myositis Association to raise money for research.

“Monterey Bay” (15 ” x 22 “) will be auctioned at the 2015 national conference of the myositis Association to raise money for research.

Twelve years later, I have once again been approached by TMA to participate in their national conference in Orlando. Of course I cannot travel there, but one of my paintings is making the trip, along with this updated version of my literature (below). The painting will be auctioned with the proceeds going to benefit research into myositis. One session of the conference is about finding purpose in life following disability, so I am very pleased to participate in this small way.

 If you click on this image of the front and back cover it will make it large enough to read.

If you click on this image of the front and back cover it will make it large enough to read.

 This is the inside of the brochure where I tell the story of becoming an artist after being diagnosed with inclusion body myositis.

This is the inside of the brochure where I tell the story of becoming an artist after being diagnosed with inclusion body myositis.

They titled this session “Act II” but if I could be there in person I might add that myositis is not necessarily a two act play. It has been nearly 5 years since I was forced to give up painting due to seriously declining strength in my hands and arms. Of course that led to yet another exciting pursuit – – writing a blog and a book taking advantage of voice recognition technology and electronic publishing. (Which reminds me, my book has been published for nearly a year and a half now and sales have slowed down considerably after beginning with quite a flourish. I didn’t publish the book to make money, in fact I have given away nearly as many as I have sold, but I am curious why it seems to have been forgotten. It was written to help people with myositis, especially those newly diagnosed, because this is not a common illness and coping with it is not a common skill. You don’t even have to pay for the book if you don’t want to because Amazon Kindle owners can read it for free. I’ve included the link below.

Mar 042014
 

bookdessert
I was just finishing a follow-up visit at the wound care center, when I mentioned my book to the nurses. One of them asked how much it was and I told her it was $2.99 for the Kindle edition. “Is that too much?” I asked her. “What if it was free?”

“That would make the difference of whether I had dessert with my meal that day,” she said.

“Well in that case, the Kindle edition will be free starting this Thursday for five days.” (One thing I have learned is that it is always important to keep on the good side of your nurses.)

Because I enrolled my book in a program called “Kindle Direct Publishing Select,” I have the option of setting the price for the Kindle edition to “free” for a five day period. They offer this as a way to widen the audience for a book. The downsides are that you lose out on the royalties during this time and you risk getting some unfavorable reviews as people who may not be especially interested in such a narrow topic may feel they didn’t get their “money’s worth.”

I am hoping this promotion will also help expand awareness of inclusion body myositis and myotonic dystrophy. So it is well worth my cost.

If you haven’t want my book yet and if the reason you were holding back was at all related to the cost, please take advantage of this promotion. It starts Thursday, March 6 and ends Monday, March 10. The free book offer is only available for the Kindle edition and not the paperback which will remain available at its regular price of $6.99. (See the link to the left of this post.)

Feb 132014
 

The paperback version of Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled

The paperback version of Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled

Rolling Back has been published in paperback and is available on Amazon for $6.99 ($6.64 for Amazon Prime members). There is also the Kindle version that costs $2.99. I have provided links to each of them below.

Writing and publishing Rolling Back as been a personally rewarding experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Several people have urged me to write another, and I will probably try. However I think I’m ready for a change of pace and may attempt a fiction novel next. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Paperback:

Kindle:

Feb 042014
 

This is the cover for my new book. The art is a slightly modified version of one of my late wife's paintings.

This is the cover for my new book. The art is a slightly modified version of one of my late wife’s paintings.

My book, Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled, has been published and is available as a Kindle version on Amazon. You don’t need a Kindle to read it, you can read it on any computer or any tablet for smart phone using the free Kindle app. Kindle owners who are Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free.

Rolling Back will be available as a paperback in a few weeks. Right now it is only in the Kindle format, but will be expanded to include other e-readers in three months. The price for the Kindle version is just $2.99. If cost is an issue I hope to be able to offer it free for five days on Amazon. When that happens, I will let everyone know.

Nov 182013
 
Read more about my drinking problem below.

Read more about my drinking problem below.

It is time for my annual update of “Chronicles of Disability.” However rather than simply cover the changes that have happened this year, I have decided to add some new content. This is partially due to my work on a new book I am writing which will tell the story of the journey (or should I say forced march) that my wife and I traveled through the jungles of disability. My own struggle with inclusion body myositis began in 1985, 11 years before I was formally diagnosed, and it continues to this day.

Part of the new content is a gallery of photographs, some new, some from earlier posts on this blog. My goal is to eventually put the entire visual record of my attempts to adapt to inclusion body myositis in one place, organized in chronological order.

This past year has been very difficult. It began with grieving for my wife who lost her battle with myotonic muscular dystrophy October 11, 2012. That grieving process will probably never end although it does change and has become less intrusive on my daily life. During that time I have also experienced the worst decline of physical function of any previous year. Most of that physical loss has been focused on my shoulders, arms and hands. I can no longer hold a Beefeater on the rocks, a Johnny Walker Black with a twist of lemon, a Cadillac Margarita, or even a glass of Petite Syrah. I also can’t hold a glass of water, but that seems to be a minor inconvenience by comparison. Dressing myself is now completely out of the question as is holding a camera or picking anything up from the table, bed or floor. Eating has been reduced to a process resembling a scene from a Monty Python movie. Getting anything from a plate to my mouth involves a slinging motion that frequently sends food flying in unexpected directions.


Now before this pity party gets out of control, I should point out that I continue to find ways to adapt. For example, there is a terrific acrylic beverage cup on Amazon that I use for coffee, whiskey, and wine. It is lightweight, has a handle that fits my hand perfectly and is relatively inexpensive. I can sling it through the air, provided it is only half-full, and generally get it pretty close to my mouth. (There is a slightly larger mug that I use for water.) As to the photography, that problem was solved when I purchased my GoPro and installed the iPhone app to control it. (See an earlier post.) Eating remains an unresolved challenge although I would rather put up with a messy aftermath then resort to being fed. I can only imagine how the pressure to eat quickly and my swallowing problem would combine, with serious consequences no doubt.


Voice recognition continues to get better with each iteration. Now my new iMac with its Mavericks operating system has built-in voice recognition that is almost as good as Dragon Dictate but has the advantage of being launched immediately by simply pushing the function key twice. I still use Dragon Dictate for the longer projects such as this post.

Apr 282011
 

The Outlook Spring 2011, Page 6

The Outlook, a quarterly publication edited by Theresa Curry for The Myositis Association (TMA) devotes nearly two pages of its Spring 2011 issue to tell its readers about the Life! disabled blog. TMA is a nonprofit organization located in Alexandria, Virginia and dedicated to raising and distributing research dollars in search of cures for the various myositis diseases. In addition to being mailed to patients, caregivers, physicians, researchers and opinion leaders, the Outlook is also available online to members of The Myositis Association. One way to support the important research they do is to join TMA. The dues are very reasonable and the work they do is extremely valuable, especially to those of us who suffer from such rare, difficult and disabling illnesses. Please visit their website: http://myositis.org