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'Corridors of Hell' : Wheelchair-Bound and Aging, Woman Faces Exile to Life She Dreads in Convalescent Home

January 27, 1988|STEPHEN BRAUN and LYNN O'SHAUGHNESSY | Times Staff Writers

Dorothy LaPell-Subota thought she would be different.

For six years, while her fellow residents of the Golden Crest Retirement Hotel spent their days playing endless rounds of gin rummy or sitting in their rooms, the proud, 90-year-old woman was bent over a desk, filling enough notebooks with poetry to produce two privately published volumes.

Around her, friends grew physically frail and mentally clouded. One by one, they were gone, hustled off from the Sunset Boulevard retirement home to convalescent facilities where their infirmities could be monitored and tended to by doctors and nurses on call 24 hours a day.

Dorothy LaPell-Subota knew those convalescent homes well. Four times in the past, injuries forced her to spend brief periods in them. After one agonizing stay, she wrote a poem about her experience. She titled it, "Corridors of Hell."

Old age does not exempt poets. Now, no longer able to move except by wheelchair and afflicted with mounting ailments that force her to rely on paramedics for help, LaPell-Subota, too, faces a legally required exile to a convalescent home.

Acting under California regulations governing the care of the elderly and infirm, the owner of the retirement hotel where LaPell-Subota lives has ordered her to move within 60 days. She has tried other area retirement homes, but none want to take on a 90-year-old woman who is anchored to a wheelchair and is growing frail.

For a once-independent woman like Dorothy LaPell-Subota, it is a moment she desperately wants to put off. But the state's amply codified licensing of homes requires retirement homes to house only those who move on their own and get through the day without medical care. Those who cannot must be housed in convalescent homes, or, if they are in good enough shape, intermediate-care facilities that provide a middle ground between strict monitoring and unsupervised living.

"Such things should not happen to someone my age," she said, furious at her helplessness.

Yet such things happen every day. No matter how hard they struggle to keep fit and to keep their minds alert, the aged age. It is hard enough to give up independent living for the boredom of retirement homes. It is harder still to give up that routine for the terror of life among those who can no longer care for themselves.

LaPell-Subota wonders whether intermediate care might be more tolerable than a convalescent home. But of the 383 such homes in Los Angeles County, no more than nine provide all the care that she requires, according to Connie Amaya, a staff assistant in the county Department of Health Services.

"The scenario she's going through is much too common in Los Angeles," said Nina Frazier, a county ombudsman. "There just aren't anywhere near the number of intermediate-care facilities we should have."

So, LaPell-Subota waits, hoping for a miracle and fearing the day when Fred Schlesinger, owner of Golden Crest, makes good on his threat to evict her.

"It's a judgment call," Schlesinger said tersely. He said he based his decision to ask LaPell-Subota to move on advice from county Fire Department paramedics. Paramedics have been summoned more than 30 times in the last two years to provide medical help to LaPell-Subota.

"She's abused the system," Schlesinger said.

Paramedics say they have no power to force the elderly to relocate to get more appropriate care. "We can make suggestions, but paramedics can't force anyone to leave the place where they live," said Fred Hurtado, president of the United Paramedics of Los Angeles and a full-time paramedic. Added Ray Shackleford, chief of the county Fire Department's West Hollywood station, which serves Golden Crest: "We can only give recommendations. After that, it's strictly up to the landlord."

LaPell-Subota is not looking for easy villains. Despite Schlesinger's order that she vacate within 60 days, he recently drove her to four other retirement homes in the area, searching for a place that would take her in. They found none willing to accept wheelchair-bound patients.

"These places are all the same," she said. "They see me in a wheelchair and they say they don't take people in wheelchairs. What am I supposed to do? The other extreme is a convalescent home, but you're like a caged animal."

LaPell-Subota just wants to stay where she is--in the corner apartment furnished with her comfortable writing desk and other possessions. There are too many memories to abandon, familiar old paintings on pale green walls, photographs of the two husbands she has outlived. And there are too many poems still to be written before she surrenders to the "corridors of hell."

"I have no family," she lamented. "I was the youngest in my family and now there's no one left. Who would help me move? This place, these things around me are the only pieces of my life I have left."

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