By Paula Katinas
Bay Ridge — Sherman Heller, a college mathematics professor, said a large portion of his life is devoted to being a caregiver to Linda, his wife of 48 years, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s very difficult watching the love of your life deteriorate,” he said, adding that at age 75, he is still working instead of retiring so that he can help pay some of the expenses for his wife’s medical care, like the purchase of a motorized hospital bed for her.
Linda Heller no longer really walks or talks, but her husband said she still has the ability to smile.
“If I can get one kiss from her a day, it gets me through the night,” he said.
Heller’s story is becoming increasingly common in Bay Ridge, according to advocates for the elderly, who point out that the community is home to one of the largest senior citizen populations in New York State and that many of the older adults are taking care of a spouse with deteriorating health.
But the state government is threatening to take away a provision that provides important assistance to caregivers of frail, elderly residents, according to Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis.
The provision, which has the unusual name of “spousal refusal,” allows the healthy partner to, in effect, refuse to carry the entire cost of caring for a spouse. The refusal allows the ailing spouse to become eligible for Medicaid, the government-run health care program for the indigent, when the person might not otherwise be eligible due to having a family income over the eligibility limit. The right of spousal refusal also allows the healthy partner to keep some of the family’s assets so that he or she doesn’t go broke.
The executive budget presented by Governor Andrew Cuomo calls for the elimination of the spousal refusal option.
That’s a major problem, Malliotakis said, because caring for an elderly, frail spouse can often be so expensive that families often end up wiping out their entire life savings.
“The cost of long-term care is crushing. Putting a spouse through years of medical assistance with no support can bankrupt even the most thoughtful, plan-oriented families,” Malliotakis said. “We cannot stand by while state government attempts to raid a married couple’s assets, and everything they have worked for their entire lives, in order to provide long-term care for one person, while leaving the surviving spouse destitute for the remainder of his or her life.”
The assemblywoman joined Heller, and Judith Grimaldi and Joanne Seminara, two Bay Ridge lawyers who assist the elderly, at a press conference on March 9 to call on the state government to maintain the spousal refusal provision.
“The elimination of spousal refusal would be disastrous for families like mine,” said Heller, who added that his wife has had Alzheimer’s for 18 years.
“The past five or six years have made it impossible to provide the care she needs myself. Spousal refusal has allowed me to stay afloat,” he said.
The press conference took place at the St. Nicholas Home at 437 Ovington Ave.
The elimination of spousal refusal would leave couples with horrible choices, such as divorce, just to survive economically, according to Grimaldi.
“These couples will need to divorce or live apart in order to be eligible for Medicaid coverage for care at home,” she said.
Seminara charged that cutting out spousal refusal would be “inhumane and budget-harming.”
Seminara addressed charges leveled by state officials that spousal refusal helps wealthy couples hold onto their assets when they could easily afford to provide the health care themselves. She pointed out that the healthy spouse must sign a contract. The state can also reject a spousal refusal application, she said.
“I urge my colleagues in the Senate and Assembly to preserve spousal refusal in their budget proposals to ensure that this critical safety net is available for families that are counting on it,” Malliotakis said.
In an article published in The New York Times on Dec. 10, 2010, Richard Ravitch, who at the time was New York’s lieutenant governor, urged state officials to examine spousal refusal with an eye toward eliminating it. Ravitch warned that the spousal refusal system could be in danger of becoming an entitlement program for people who were not really needy.
— Additional reporting by Rick Buttacavoli