‘Stuck in the safety net,’ elderly District veteran hopes crowdfunding will help


Ralph Bolen, 80, is seen at a care facility in Washington on Dec. 6. He's been locked out of his co-op studio apartment for the last three years since a hospital visit caused him to fall behind on his monthly dues. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Eighty-year-old Ralph Bolen sat in front of the care facility where he lives, pulled on a cigarette and contemplated the four blocks separating him from his first-floor studio in a co-op near Dupont Circle.

“It’s one big room and it’s very comfortable, with a picture window,” he said, adding that he likes to lounge on his couch there and watch TV, or sit on the steps and chat with neighbors.

“I own my apartment,” he said. He lived there for decades with his wife, who is now deceased, and has no mortgage on it.

But Bolen, a retired bartender and Navy veteran of the Korean War who has dementia, hasn’t lived there since 2010, when a hospital stay ended with his being moved to a care facility for rehabilitation. That set off a series of events that left him unable to return home.

As Americans live longer and families become more mobile and dispersed, the number of older people living alone has been rising. In the District, the number is particularly high: About 57 percent of people over 65 live alone, compared with about 40 percent nationwide, according to the D.C. Office on Aging.


Some, like Bolen, are bound to fall through the bureaucratic cracks.

Bolen’s bathroom needed $4,000 in repairs before the rehabilitation facility would release him to live there, according to Trisha White, a neighbor in the co-op.

But with his Social Security checks going to pay for the care facility, he could no longer pay the $250 monthly maintenance fee on his apartment, let alone the cost of repairs. For three years, the fees have been piling up, and with additional late fees and legal costs, White estimates that Bolen owes the building about $16,000.

“It’s been a constant loop,” White said. “He’s just kind of stuck in the safety net.”

White has offered to pay the debts and maintain the unit in exchange for eventually inheriting the apartment from Bolen, who has no children. Bolen’s court-appointed lawyer, his court-appointed conservator and his two guardians signed off on that proposal in June.

But a judge did not approve the deal, saying it was not in Bolen’s interest.

So last week, White decided to tackle an old man’s problem with a modern solution: She started an online crowdfunding campaign to raise $20,000 to pay off Bolen’s debts and make his apartment habitable.


Ralph Bolen, 80, is at a care facility rather than at his home in Washington, D.C. He's been locked out of his co-op studio apartment for the last three years since a hospital visit caused him to fall behind on his monthly dues. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

She admitted that it seemed like a long shot given Bolen’s circumstances. “He’s not a fireman who lost an arm, or a person who lost his house in a flood,” she said. “He’s just a little old man.’’

She spread the word on Twitter, Facebook and a local blog, and the response astounded her. Since last Tuesday, when it started, the campaign has raised nearly $4,800. Donations have come in from as far away as Germany and the Netherlands.

“I’m just amazed at the generosity of complete strangers. . . . I’m beginning to think that maybe it might happen,” White said.

It wouldn’t be too soon for Bolen, who at least once has hopped the fence at the care facility, walked to his apartment, broken in and sat on his couch. “It felt very good,” he said. “I want to go back to that life. What’s wrong with that?”

In order for that to happen, Bolen would need substantial home care, his guardians and his lawyer said, noting that he has been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

An application was filed for an Medicaid waiver from the D.C. Department of Health that would provide Bolen with 16 hours a day of in-home nursing care seven days a week, said Julie Gray-Roller, who with her husband, Rex Roller, was appointed Bolen’s guardian in 2011. Such services are paid for by Medicaid and allow the recipient to receive Social Security payments.

Bolen was approved for the services last year, Gray-Roller said, adding that the D.C. government told her they had a slot for him and sent her a list of local providers of in-home care. In addition, the petition said, the guardians were looking into a program to provide an additional eight hours of day care.

But because Bolen’s apartment was not considered inhabitable, that process stalled and Bolen lost his slot, Gray-Roller said. “This is rather a Catch-22 situation,” she said. “We’re just going around and around in circles.”

In the meantime, the 14-unit co-op has put a lien on Bolen’s property for what it is owed, White said. The board has voted to revoke Bolen’s membership and proceed with further legal action, according to the June petition that the judge denied; the petition noted that the unit in its current condition would fetch a “very low price, negatively impacting the value” of neighboring units.

Messages left for a board member were not returned.

White says she does not blame the co-op for its actions but hopes the crowdfunding campaign will make further legal action unnecessary.

As Dupont Circle has become a popular area for young professionals, older residents have sometimes felt left out. At Dupont Circle Village, an organization of volunteers helping older residents in the area, 48 percent of the 150 residents live alone and will need increasing levels of care as they age, said Iris Molotsky, the organization’s president.

Rex Roller, who has been Bolen’s friend since 1966, recalled him back then as “a good steady worker” at the Admiral Benbow, a bar on Connecticut Avenue. The bar no longer exists, nor does the Washington of that era.

“There was a camaraderie, all the bohemian types up and down Connecticut Avenue and Dupont,” he said, recalling the bongo players and Janis Joplin look-alikes in the circle. “Ralph had a good voice; he had a good Irish voice.”

But Bolen is a bit of a relic and may no longer fit in with some of the neighborhood’s “youngers and yuppies,” Roller said. “They don’t like him sitting around on the front steps and bumming cigarettes and money and so on.”

Roller and his wife also expressed doubt that Bolen would consent to the proposed arrangement of home and day care even if the crowdsourcing campaign succeeds.

“He’s not even open to someone coming at all,” Gray-Roller said.

The judge is scheduled to reconsider White’s petition in January, according to Bolen’s court-appointed lawyer, Patrick Hand. He will also consider a petition that another court-appointed lawyer is filing on behalf of another potential investor offering a similar deal to White’s, but with possibly more money for Bolen. That lawyer did not return calls.

Hand said his priority was to get Bolen home and to get him the best deal, but that White was more likely to keep a close eye on Bolen than someone who does not know him.

White said she doesn’t care which arrangement goes through as long as Bolen gets to come home.

“It’s important to me,” she said, noting that her late father was also a Korean War veteran. “Ralph is not a replacement for my dad, but I just know that if my dad were in that situation I would want someone to help.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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