Old Man Down

Brookline Tab, January 2003

The old man lay sprawled on the curb near Beacon St., half on the sidewalk, half in the side street. I approached him nervously, clutching my child’s hand tightly.

“Are you alright?” I asked loudly.

He muttered something in a faint, high-pitched voice. I bent closer. Drool hung thickly from his mouth. A small bag of groceries slumped near him. He reached his arm up towards me. I was still holding my little son’s hand, so I looked at the man’s arm stupidly for a moment, before letting go of my child. “Stay right there,” I commanded. I grabbed the man’s arm and pulled hard, but nothing happened. The man’s grayish chapped skin showed over thin socks; the swollen, misshapen feet didn’t look like they could support him very well. My son stood by watching quietly, aware of the unusual and urgent nature of the situation.

I could not budge him. I began to panic. I wanted to yell for help, call 911. I was just about to, when a man showed up almost out of nowhere and came right over. He yanked the man to his feet, set the situation right. I walked away with my child, shaking with relief.

What happens when the old man falls down in a quieter part of town, or in the middle of crossing a busy street? Who comes to his aid in the middle of the night, who makes sure he is monitoring his diabetes, his blood pressure? Who are these people, alone and elderly, and what becomes of them? I think of my own grandmother, who was fortunate enough to have children who could find her assisted living, then who cared enough and had energy enough to move her to a new place when it became clear that she was not being treated well. What about all of the elderly, the sick, the disabled students who don’t have help? Or the wherewithal to get on a list for a state-run facility? Or if there is no healthcare for them? Or if the state cuts off their school tuition?

“Reign in the spending,” suggest the powers that be. Reign in program sthat provides safety nets for people like the old man, the disabled, the poor? Do people like Governor Romney or Speaker Finneran have any idea what it’s like to live with a disabled person, an adult who is mentally retarded, for example, in the first place? The state government, in their desire to cut services to avoid rolling back the tax cut, has over the past year, alternately targeted the Departments of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, the Department of Social Services, and now those placed in residential special education schools. Finneran was one of the most outspoken, several years ago, about the special education schools and how cushy he thought they were. The truth is, no one makes the decision to attend those schools lightly, and if they do go, it is because their needs are so intensive that their home schools cannot help them, in some cases, they are the last stop before dropping out, suicide, or institutionalization. Without the health and human service programs, staff, and supports that these valuable organizations provide, many thousands of our neediest citizens will suffer. To have the state whisk away some of the only supports in place for this sort of care, is nothing short of cruel.

In this society, we still have people like that man who came over and yanked the old man to his feet without a second thought. He is the unsung hero, like Medicaid, like the Department of Mental Health, like the residential SPED school, who provide a moment of respite in an otherwise harsh world. What worries me is not so much that these are costly programs but that they are still not enough. We still must have thousands of people falling through the cracks in the sidewalks of Boston, thousands who fall for the last time and really, truly, cannot get up.

This state must take appropriate action so that we can collectively help pick the old man up off the street, or will we be guilty of just walking on by?