My Brother’s Courage

Independent Living, Parents, People with Disabilities, Siblings 11 Comments »
Billy Schulz Shovels Snow for His Mother

Billy Schulz Shovels Snow for His Mother

The bad weather we have had recently requires determination and courage and extra hard work for many of us. Billy’s service to me inspired his sister, Mary de Wit, to compose this poem for us.

My Brother’s Courage

My brother’s courage grips my heart these ways:
He concentrates on lacing tight his boots,
Assembles hat and gloves and arctic suit,
And with resolve, he steps into the haze.
His mission is to fetch the frozen news,
(This, after warming Mother’s shoulder pad,
Insuring she her phone and coffee had.)
He, cautiously, his icy way pursues.
His life is full of fear. Afraid to fall
On snow — or tumbling from a vista deck—
Offending, being dumb, bouncing a check…
Still every day he faces: smiling, tall.
From his perspective he might call us this:
Retarded, learning slowly who he is.

© 2011 Mary de Wit

The Planning

Adults with Down Syndrome, Advocate, Aging, Auburn University, Disability, Down Syndrome, Family Challenges, Independent Living, People with Disabilities, Siblings No Comments »

A few weeks ago Embry Burrus wrote about The Abundant Life that her sister Margaret and their mother experience. She mentioned a Special Needs Trust Fund, which prompted a question from a follower of our blog. It occurred to me that many people are not aware of the planning that goes into arranging for the future of persons with disabilities. Embry wrote the following article for an issue of the newsletter of the National Down Syndrome Congress and has graciously given me permission to post it here. Thank you, Embry, for your insight and experience.

“What will happen to your sister when your mother dies?” I guess that people began asking me this about 10 years ago, when my mother was getting close to 80. Now that she’s 90, it seems to be the question I get asked when I speak to parent groups around the country. Funny thing is, I didn’t have a clue how to answer that question ten years ago, and it’s only because our family has now gone through “the planning” for my sister that I am able to even entertain the question now. My older sister, Margaret is now 51, and yes, our mother is 90, and yes, they still live together!

“You mean your mother still takes care of your sister?” That’s usually the second question I hear. My reply is, “Well, they take care of each other.” And they did, for a very long time. It’s only been in the last 7 months that my brother and I started looking for someone to help out. And now, we have a sweet lady who comes in 5 days a week to help out with laundry, cooking, cleaning and being a chauffeur to Margaret. Now that Mama doesn’t drive anymore, Brenda drives Margaret to all of her day programs for adults with disabilities, takes them to the grocery store, doctors appointments, or anywhere else they need to go.

I never thought that my mother and Margaret would need help, and I don’t think my mother did, either. To be honest, I don’t think my mother ever considered that Margaret would outlive her – Margaret was born in 1958, with Down syndrome – who would have thought she would still be alive when my mother was 90? But, here we are, and now plans must be made.

It all started when my mother decided that she wanted to leave the house they live in to Margaret, along with her share of the inheritance. She contacted her lawyer and asked him if he could re-write her Will to include these changes. So, my mother, brother and I went to meet with my mother’s financial adviser who then suggested we meet with a trust lawyer. As we sat around the table with the adviser, the lawyer and the trust officer, we learned very quickly that we knew nothing about this whole process.

Our first clue was when one of them spoke up and asked, “Who is your sister’s guardian?” Jake and I looked at each other, and then at mama, who was speechless, and in more of a question than an answer said, “Our mother?” He then replied, “Oh, so you’ve already set up the guardianship?” Dumbfounded, we stared at each other. “Isn’t our mother her legal guardian? She’s her mother.”

“Not in the eyes of the law she’s not. Your sister is past the age of majority and your mother would have to be appointed her guardian.” (These laws may differ among states, so anyone looking into this would need to determine what their state law is regarding guardianship).

So began the lengthy process of establishing guardianship, changing my mother’s will, and setting up a trust (to include the house and other assets) for Margaret. The first step involved my mother’s lawyer petitioning the court in order to establish that Margaret was in fact disabled. About a week later, a police officer came to my mother’s house with a court order for Margaret to be evaluated by a physician who could write a statement describing why Margaret is disabled. During this time, the court also sent one of its officers to interview my mother’s two sisters regarding Margaret’s disability. According to my mother’s lawyer, they do this so that a family member can’t take advantage of someone (or steal their assets) by just deciding to be their guardian. There has to be at least two other people who will bear witness that this person is disabled and needs a guardian.

Once that was completed, we had a court date with the judge of the probate court; Margaret, my mother, her lawyer, my brother and I went before the judge whose task was  to establish guardianship. There was also a court-appointed lawyer present who took Margaret into another room by herself and asked her some questions (I’m assuming just to verify that she was in need of a guardian). The judge asked Margaret and my mother some questions, and the entire process took about 20 minutes. We were then given the guardianship papers, which establish that my mother is now Margaret’s legal guardian (upon my mother’s death, I will be my sister’s legal guardian, although this will involve additional paperwork), and we were informed that we have to submit a report about Margaret’s well being to the probate court on a yearly basis.

Well, we thought everything was taken care of until just a couple of years ago when Margaret, very unexpectedly, received a large sum of money from one of my mother’s relatives. Wow, what a blessing! But, this threw a kink into the works because this money was in a trust, and it was in Margaret’s name. We wanted to make sure that Margaret would have this money for the duration of her life, and at the same time, not lose her government benefits.

I had heard people talk about “Special Needs Trusts,” but didn’t really know anything about them, or how to get started. I contacted the trust lawyer who was very knowledgeable, and she took care of re-writing my mother’s will (again) to include all the important language. As it turns out, many people don’t have a special needs trust due to the fact that they just don’t know they exist. In addition, it is a fairly expensive process to set up, and if there isn’t a large enough sum of money to be protected, it isn’t really worth the time, money and effort. But, in our situation, we felt like it was warranted. I can’t express how much peace of mind this gives me and my family. We know that Margaret will be taken care of, and her assets, along with her government benefits, will be protected. It’s especially comforting to me, as I will be the person taking care of my sister once my mother is gone. I can only hope that I will be the guardian, confidante and lifelong advocate my mother has been for 51 years.

A. Embry Burrus

Auburn, Alabama

Embry is an Associate Clinical Professor in speech pathology at Auburn University. She is also the author of Mama and Margaret, a memoir about her older sister with Down syndrome.

Abundant Life by Embry Burrus

Adults with Down Syndrome, Advocate, Aging, Auburn University, Family Challenges, Mother of an Adult with a Disability, Parents, People with Disabilities, Siblings 83 Comments »
Margaret, Embry and Mama at the Beach

Margaret, Embry and Mama at the Beach

Jane has graciously asked me to share with her readers how my family is caring for my older sister, Margaret, who has Down syndrome. It’s one of the most common questions that people ask me when I go to speak to parent groups and seminars: “What will happen to your sister when your mother dies?”

To be honest, it’s a fair question. My mother is 91 years old, so folks wonder, how could she possibly still take care of an adult child with Down syndrome? And the answer is, it’s now a group effort.

Our father died in 1983, and since then, our mother has been Margaret’s confidante,  caretaker, and as always, her lifelong advocate. Even when my father was alive, Mama was the one who took care of things; especially where Margaret was concerned. She continued to drive into her late eighties, and took care of all the household duties and bills. She drove Margaret to all of her social events, to the grocery store, to church, and even on short trips. People are always amazed when they meet her, marveling at how active, funny and engaging she is at 91 – she is truly an amazing person!

But, things have changed around their house now. Mama knew she needed to stop driving, especially at night, and the household chores were starting to overwhelm her. I called one night at around 8:30, and they were just sitting down to supper. When I asked Mama why they were eating so late, her response was, “I don’t know, I just couldn’t get it together.” I knew it was time to get her some help.

My brother and I talked, and decided that we needed to find someone who could help out on a daily basis with cooking, cleaning and driving Mama and Margaret to their activities and appointments. We were blessed to have a friend recommend someone, and now we have two wonderful ladies who share the duties. Brenda comes every morning, drives Margaret to her activities with the recreation department, and then comes back to the house where she cleans, fixes lunch, does laundry and takes Mama to the grocery store, the bank, or wherever she needs to go. Since Brenda already had a job in the evenings (taking care of another elderly person), we needed to find someone else who could work a few hours every night. Brenda knew of someone in her church that was retired and looking for a part-time job, so she recommended Marion, and she comes in Monday through Friday from 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. She makes dinner, cleans the kitchen, and takes care of anything that needs doing before they go to bed.

Mama and Margaret are still able to manage things at night, and on the weekends, as I usually go over on Sundays to spend the day with them and take care of the bills. I know there will come a time when they will need full-time, seven day a week help, but for now, our set-up works just fine.

I realize that I still haven’t answered the question of what will happen to Margaret when my mother is gone, and the truth is, we don’t have “a plan” in place. My mother and I have discussed it, but it’s difficult for her to talk about. I don’t think my mother ever considered that Margaret might outlive her. She feels responsible for Margaret, and doesn’t want my brother or me to “have to worry with it.” I have tried to assure her that this is no burden for me, and that I am honored to take care of Margaret; I only hope I can do as good a job as my mother has.

Two years ago, we set up a Special Needs trust for Margaret, so that any assets she has will be protected and not cause her to lose her government benefits. We also established guardianship so that I will become her legal guardian once my mother is no longer living.

What I hope for is that Margaret is able to continue to live in her home (which will go into the trust once my mother has passed on), and we will have wonderful people like Brenda and Marion to help out. Since I will be Margaret’s legal guardian upon my mother’s death, those decisions will be left up to me. My plan is, first and foremost, to do what’s best for Margaret, and to make sure that she continues to lead a happy and fulfilled life.

A. Embry Burrus, MCD, CCC/SLP
Associate Clinical Professor
Department of Communication Disorders
Auburn University
E-mail: burruae@auburn
Author: Mama and Margaret

Have you wondered who would take care of your family member with a disability? Do you have a plan? We welcome your suggestions and questions.

Good News!

Advocate, Community Participation, Disability, Down Syndrome, Education, Inspiration, Siblings No Comments »
Jane and Billy Schulz heard good news about Rosa's Law.

Jane and Billy Schulz heard good news about Rosa's Law.

U. S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski from Maryland announced that her bill introduced to eliminate the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal education,  health and labor laws passed the Senate on Thursday night by unanimous consent.

This is big!

For months people have been blogging, emailing, and twittering about the misuse of the “R” word. If you would like the background and my response to this effort, you may look at my earlier blog on the “R” word.

Called “Rosa’s Law,” the bill changes the phrase “mentally retarded” to “an individual with an intellectual disability” in health,  education and labor law. Senator Mike Enzi, a co-sponsor of the bill, states that “The bill is simple in nature but profound in what it will do when it is enacted. For far too long we have used hurtful words like ‘mental retardation’ or ‘ MR’ in our federal statutes to refer to those living with intellectual disabilities. While the way people feel is important, the way people are treated is equally important. Rosa’s Law will make a greatly-needed change that should have been made well before today – and it will encourage us to treat people the way they would like to be treated.”

The passage of this law does not guarantee that people will cease to use pejorative terms to describe those who have disabilities, but it is a start. Local and federal agencies will be required to use the new term, as will school personnel. I remember, as a special educator, having to inform parents that their child had been identified as having mental retardation; I also remember their reactions. I hope that this new term will be kinder and more readily accepted. However, there will always be a need to insure that children with disabilities of any kind are treated with respect, regardless of the label used.

I think the most important aspect of this law is the way it was initiated and voted into law. The inspiration for the law came from the actions of a family whose daughter, Rosa, was diagnosed with Down syndrome and labeled retarded at school. The mother teamed up with other parents and her state delegate to introduce a bill to change the terminology in her home state law. A hearing on the implications of changing the law was held prior to consideration at the Maryland  General Assembly.

At the hearing, the testimony that had the greatest impact was given by Rosa’s 11-year-old brother. He said “What you call people is how you treat them. What you call my sister is how you will treat her. If you believe she’s ‘retarded,’ it invites taunting, stigma. It invites bullying and it also invites the slammed doors of being treated with respect and dignity.”

This story is a perfect example of effective citizen advocacy, according to Senator Mikulski. She said that this family “pulled together to pull us all to another way of thinking. They fought for the respect and dignity of a loved one. The more than 6 million people with intellectual disabilities in America deserve that same respect and dignity.”

A similar bill has been introduced in the House and has 63 co-sponsors. The law does not affect any services, rights, responsibilities or educational opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.

There is no end to what we can accomplish when we pull together!

Do you think this law will make a difference?

Unique Challenge?

Adults with Down Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Family Challenges, Independent Living, Parents, Siblings No Comments »

Billy is a hoarder. We always called it a “pack rat” and thought it was somehow connected to his having Down Syndrome. I located an entry in my journal dated January, 1999.

John is on the way to build shelves in Billy’s study for his media center. We have worked for weeks to empty this tiny room with 17 years’ collections in it.

When we moved two years later, much of Billy’s “stuff” mysteriously disappeared. However, we moved into a larger house and like a carp thrown from a fish bowl into a pond, Billy’s stuff adapted to the size of its environment. The TV Guides, 8 track tapes, and xeroxed copies of Jane Fonda were no longer there, but the system grew to include video tapes, Peoples Magazine, and DVD films. Again, with the help of Billy’s siblings, we sought a solution to the unwieldy collection.

Tom spent most of last week converting a rarely used garage adjacent to Billy’s apartment into a new media center. It contains many shelves, a place for a spare bed, niches for Billy’s desk and his stereo player, and a spot for his exercise machine. In his usual manner, Tom created a beautiful room, professionally built and thoughtfully made to accommodate Billy’s treasures. Needless to say, Billy is thrilled with the results and is moving slowly to make it a true media center. Mary hauled trash (my term), purchased materials, cooked meals, and was on hand for any errands.

Ironically, in Sunday’s newspaper, I noted that one of the TV stations listed about four hours of programs about hoarding. I watched some of the stories and was amazed at the gravity of this compulsive disorder. Apparently there are around three million people in the United States who are living in dangerous, unhealthy situations created by hoarding. In the recorded versions the treatments required a clinical psychologist or certified organizer plus dozens of vans to haul away things people had saved. In one situation it was revealed by the children that before their father died he had for years removed his wife’s collections on a regular basis.

I no longer regard Billy’s disorder as a “unique challenge.” The unique aspect is the remarkable and loving help from his siblings.

Billy’s new Media Center takes shape.
Our family’s greatest gift is the ability and desire to work together.
There was excitement, some tension, and a few cross words.
But mostly there was love.

Please share how you deal with your unique challenges.

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