PHOTOS BY JUSTIN FOX BURKS
Rosie Jackson, 87, the house's owner and occupant, has been a ward of the Aging Commission of the Mid-South since her sister died in 1996, leaving her alone in the house. Since then, the agency has taken care of her bills, given her $300 spending money every month, and arranged rides to and from the doctor. But some of Jackson's friends wonder if the agency is doing all it can for her. Looking at Jackson's house, it's easy to see why.
State Probation and parole MANAGER Mary Logan-Jones grew up on the 1500 block of Miller, just across the street from where Jackson lives. For as long as she can remember, Jackson lived in the house with her sister and her mother. Each woman had her own separate apartment in the house, complete with kitchen. Logan-Jones' father still lives across the street.
"They didn't have any children," says Logan-Jones. "They basically helped raise us. I feel like I'm supposed to give back to them. I promised her sister before she died that I would take care of Miss Rosie."
In 1994, at the age of 107, Jackson's mother died. Around the same time, her sister Corhan Wordley began needing dialysis, and Logan-Jones would go over to the house to help out with day-to-day things. One day, Wordley was taken to the hospital. When she came back, she had to be fed via a tube into her stomach.
"When she came home," says Logan-Jones, "she was bedridden. I was there four or five times a day. My day would start at 4:30 or 5 o'clock every morning because I had to get her up and cleaned up and dressed and fed before I went to work or my child went to daycare. This was every single day. Somebody had to do it. Miss Jackson couldn't do it all by herself. She kept the house clean, but she didn't know how to do the feeding tube and she didn't want to know, because of her eyesight."
Wordley authorized her Social Security check so Logan-Jones could cash it for her and offered to put the house in Logan-Jones' name if she would take care of Jackson. Logan-Jones refused. "When the sister became bedridden, she was going to give me power of attorney over her, but I wasn't going to do that," says Logan-Jones. "I didn't want to rob Miss Jackson of anything and that's what I felt like I would have been doing." Looking back on the situation, she gets angry at herself for not taking power of attorney when she had the chance and for not realizing what Jackson's sister was trying to tell her.
"Everything just went downhill as soon as the sister died," says Logan-Jones. "Miss Jackson called me one day and said, 'I need you to come over right now.' So I leave work and go over. She had gone to the mailbox and seen her bank statement and it did not have her name on it, which took her for a loop. She wanted to know what it meant and I said, 'It looks like your money has been removed and put into another account.'"
Logan-Jones thinks a neighbor had Jackson sign the account over to her. Eventually, Jackson's case came before Probate Court when a woman who had been living in the house with Jackson filed for conservatorship. Logan-Jones went to the hearing but was never asked to speak to the court. "At the end of the hearing, the attorney came out and said that the judge didn't want to appoint me, nor one of the people that [the attorney] had in mind, that he was going to appoint the Delta Agency on Aging as conservator," says Logan-Jones. "To be honest, when I walked out of the courthouse I was really kind of happy. I guess the judge felt it was in Miss Jackson's best interest to have a neutral party, and I thought it was a good idea at the time."
The Delta Area Agency on Aging was created in 1980 as a service to five local governments -- Memphis, Shelby County, Fayette County, Tipton County, and Lauderdale County. Now called the Aging Commission of the Mid-South, it gets most of its funding from the federal government as a function of the 1965 Older Americans Act. There were 43 million Americans identified as age 60 or older on the 1998 census, and with the advancement of medical science, the national organization of area agencies on aging says there is a growing need for its members' services. Nationally, there are 660 area agencies on aging.
|Mary Logan-Jones and Jackson.|
Aging Commission director Robert McFalls is a portly man with an even voice. He started with the agency in 1986, the same year its conservatorship program was enacted by the General Assembly. "There were a lot of people who were falling through the cracks, if you will, who had no one to look out for their welfare," says McFalls. "The program is really set up as a safety net to assist individuals who have no one to help them."
The agency is not allowed to solicit clients for the program, and McFalls says they always try to identify another party to serve as the conservator if possible. McFalls says the guardianship program rolls currently include approximately 50 cases. Some live in nursing homes, while others live in their own homes. "Our goal and mission is to unite senior citizens with the services and agencies that serve them," he says. "We provide funding that supports senior citizens in terms of independence and being able to live at home."
In June 1997, Rosie Jackson became a client.
"July rolled around," says Logan-Jones, "and Miss Jackson hadn't heard anything, so in August my husband and I went to see the conservator, and she didn't know what we were talking about. She said she had never received the paperwork."
Representatives of the Agency on Aging will not discuss specific cases because of confidentiality requirements, but Probate Court documents show that Jackson's conservatorship was placed with the Agency on Aging on June 26, 1997.
"Our authority is established by the court order," says McFalls, "so it depends on each individual situation. Most times we're given very broad authority to care for the individual to make sure they're in a safe living environment and that their medical needs are attended to. That could include [authorizing] surgery and giving medical consent, as would be required." In Jackson's case, the court charged the agency with responsibility for disposing of property, making purchases, and accepting or refusing medical and mental examinations, treatment, or hospitalization. The court also gave the agency the power to make decisions about Jackson's residence and to make arrangements for proper care.
Jackson is a scared little old lady. She walks in the slight stooped shuffle of the aged. She has lost much of her hair and many of her teeth. She rarely leaves her house, and though it has three sections -- one for each of the women who used to live there -- Jackson lives in basically three rooms: her sister's old bedroom, a kitchen, and the nearby bathroom. Her refrigerator holds a few cans of Coca-Cola, some snack packs of Jell-O, Metamucil, and little else.
"She's just been a miserable, unhappy lady for the past five years," says Logan-Jones. "Just yesterday she was complaining about the washer and dryer again." Jackson has been asking for a washing machine and a dryer for at least three years. Logan-Jones now washes her sheets and bedclothes, and Jackson washes smaller items by hand.
Gracie Cage was paid to live with Jackson as her personal assistant from July 2000 to October 2002. "The whole time I was there," she says, "the agency promised her a washer and dryer, but she never got it." Instead, Cage says, she washed Jackson's clothes by hand in a face bowl or would take them to the laundromat. Cage also did all the grocery shopping and the cooking. Now that she's moved out, she doesn't know what's happening with Jackson.
Something similar happened several years ago when Jackson wanted a television set so she could watch the wrestling matches she likes. Logan-Jones could not understand why the television was such a problem and happened to mention it to Novella Smith-Arnold, the well-connected chaplain with Calvary Episcopal Church's outreach ministry.
"What they've done to that woman is a sin," says Smith-Arnold. She set up a meeting with members of the agency at Jackson's house, and it was decided that Jackson could have a TV. "When I called over there and asked questions, I got the runaround. Finally, they said yes they would get her a television set, but nothing else changed. ... There was no reason I should have had to get involved to get Miss Rosie a television set. There's just no reason."
Because Jackson told her she wanted to write a will, Smith-Arnold also asked about that and was told if Jackson wanted to write one, that would be fine. But according to court documents, Jackson had two wills already -- one written in 1996 and one written in February 1997. The court decided that Jackson's later will had been executed under undue influence and threw it out.
McFalls says: "Any property that we have at death would revert back to the state. An individual cannot execute a will if they've been declared incompetent and that's why we would have them as a conservator case. The will would have to predate us."
When Jackson's estate was transferred to the agency, it was estimated at $90,000. The agency gives her $300 a month in spending money. That money covers her groceries, clothing, and whatever other incidentals she might need. McFalls says that in some cases people get their spending money bimonthly, others weekly, and still others monthly. "Personal needs depend on the individual and on the individual's income. You have to make sure the basics are met first: your housing needs, your medical needs, your food needs," he says. "We review the income and a decision is made on the individual's ability to manage money. For some people we have to go make purchases for them."
When asked about the agency, Jackson shoos the subject away. "I don't want to talk about them. They haven't done me right." She says she hardly ever sees her conservator. Jackson rarely leaves the house, except to go to the doctor and then a hired driver takes her. "I sit here," she says. "I mop, I clean." The house, which once housed a beauty shop in its back section, is for the most part neat and tidy. The front rooms are full of heavy wooden furniture, and plastic covers the chairs and sofas to keep them clean. The back section is a different story.
"The far-back room, it's falling apart," says Cage. "There was a big storm and the back of the house just flew off. Then there was rain all in the back room." Cage and her granddaughter lived with Jackson for two years and eventually moved out because of the collapsed ceiling. "I think it was the last of 2000 when that storm was," she says."They were sending people out to look at it but no one ever came out to fix it. These big bugs were flying in and we couldn't stand those bugs, so we moved out. Miss Rosie said she was coming with us, but she changed her mind."
According to Probate Court documents dated December 19, 2002, the agency petitioned and was granted $2,875.36 to use for repairs to the ceiling. Cage says she was told by the agency last September that they would all have to leave the house because it was going to be condemned. But the roof is still falling down and Jackson is still living there, only now she's living alone.
Which is part of what makes Logan-Jones concerned about how well the agency is doing its job. There are four staff members for the conservatorship program, but it's unclear how often they make contact with Jackson. She needs medicated eye drops every day, and Cage says when she lived there, she took Jackson's blood sugar every day, as well.
"I just want her in the hands of someone who really cares. I'm not saying the Delta Agency doesn't care. I just don't think she's getting all the time and attention she needs," says Logan-Jones. "I try to be understanding that the agency is conservator over a large number of people -- I can understand that -- but I don't care about a large number of people. The only person I care about is Miss Jackson. I go to the hospital and they say, 'Are you her conservator?' I say no and it's, 'Well, we called [the agency], we had to restrain [Jackson], we need to let them know.' [The hospital] is saying 'we need ... we need ...' and they don't get any response. I can't do anything about those things," says Logan-Jones.
McFalls, who calls the conservatorship office the "program of last resort," says the agency is always open to another party being conservator if there is someone more appropriate than the agency.
Logan-Jones has thought about applying for conservatorship but isn't sure it would do much good. "Right now, everyone plays their part: my husband and I bring her groceries. I come by and give her her medicine. Another neighbor comes by in the middle of the day and visits with her. I'm afraid if I tried to get conservatorship, other people will stop what they're doing for her," says Logan-Jones. "I think they think I want the house. If I wanted the house, I could've had the house. Do you think I want to live there? I mean, I grew up there, but that was 40 years ago. Things change." Logan-Jones currently lives in Cordova with her family.
"I don't know what to do to keep Miss Jackson from being hurt," says Logan-Jones. "She wonders, Why can't I buy my own stuff? One year for Christmas the agency gave her a jogging suit when she doesn't even wear pants. I hear 'Why can't I?' all the time, and I just don't have an answer. She's just a sad lady who sits in her house all day long by herself."