Older Arlingtonians with disabilities find a home

Muriel Crisler moved into a new apartment at the Mary Marshall Assisted Living Residence three weeks ago and spent the first two weeks “excited,” she said.

It isn’t just that the entire residence is wheelchair-accessible, that the social life is better than what she had while living alone, or that she likes the meals. Her comfort comes from something more intangible.

“There are more people here like me,” she said Wednesday. “Not necessarily wheelchair-bound, but . . . there is kind of an acceptance of each other.”

Twenty-five people with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses are now living in the 52-unit center in the Fort Myer area of Arlington County. All are 55 or older, and that makes this new center unique in the nation.

“Thirty years ago, this typical target audience didn’t age to that level,” said Mike King, president of Volunteers of America, the nonprofit group that is operating the center. With better medical care, many people with a variety of disabilities now live long lives, but the social service network has not caught up.

The opening of the center comes as the state closes four of its five large institutions for people with intellectual disabilities in favor of smaller, community-based residences, a nationwide trend as society rethinks its once-default attitude that the disabled should be confined and hidden from the public. In Virginia, the move follows a federal investigation of facilities that concluded the state discriminated against residents by keeping them in the institutions instead of providing community-based care in smaller settings.

The move is not without controversy: Some families are upset that they were not consulted about the agreement between the Justice Department and the state, and others are worried about where their relatives will live. Virginia will provide Medicaid waivers to nearly 4,200 people, and state officials will establish an $800,000 housing-assistance fund, among other efforts.

“We haven’t taken anybody from large institutions to date,” said Kay Halverson, director of residence services at the Mary Marshall residence, but it’s possible some will move in. Officials expect the center to fill up in coming months with more low-income Arlingtonians who need help with some of the basics of living.

“I think we feel supported by the state,” Halverson said, while the county “has been extremely instrumental” in getting the residence underway.

“There certainly are more than 52 people who have these challenges in our community,” said Mary Hynes, chairman of the Arlington County Board.

Opening the Mary Marshall center wasn’t easy. The property had been a 39-unit apartment building that was vacant when Arlington County bought it for $2.7 million in 2003. Renovations cost $8.2 million in funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Every step of the renovation seemed to bring complications, said Marsha Allgeier, the deputy county manager who has been a leader in the project, but it’s now a beautifully bright and clean facility at the end of a cul-de-sac.

“Anything worth doing takes a lot of time and effort,” Allgeier said.

The county named the property after Marshall, a longtime Northern Virginia delegate to the General Assembly. The county turned the deed over to Volunteers of America, but Arlington taxpayers will continue to support about two-thirds of the center’s $3.2 million annual operating cost.

Each floor has a small lounge area with a fireplace, and there is a beauty salon that is periodically staffed by volunteer hairstylists. There’s a pantry and small kitchen for residents who want to prepare a meal or a snack, a laundry room where residents are expected to do their own laundry, an exercise area and computer workstations. The facility is non-smoking, but there are two spots outdoors where smokers congregate. A full kitchen serves three meals daily in the facility’s bright dining room.

“This center provides a dignified, respectable way for residents to live out their lives,” said King.

Crisler showed off her large, comfortable one-bedroom apartment, which she decorated with small religious figurines, photos, her own bedspread, dresser and armchair. Relaxing on her bed to watch a favorite television show about vampires, she noted that she doesn’t have a kitchenette, as some rooms do, but she prefers the extra space. There’s plenty of room to entertain visitors, and when she wants to be alone, she can lock her door.

But from conversations with several residents, it doesn’t sound as if they spend a lot of time on their own. Farid Bahig, 66, was happy to leave the cooking and cleaning to someone else while he checked his e-mail on one of the facility’s computers. He also happily recounted a recent men’s trip to see the movie “Red Tails.”

Robert Woosley, 65, who has lived in three different group homes over the years, reveled in the three hot meals a day, an improvement from his last group home. He enjoys the social life as well.

“I’m looking for a girlfriend,” he declared. “Somebody who knows about money. I’m on a limited budget, and I like to spend.”

 
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