Dan Noble, a 90-year-old retired playwright, was in trouble. His apartment on Owens Road was wall-to-wall newspapers, magazines and memorabilia. The only space in which to move, it seemed, was around the bed. Then, in January, he fell and had to be hospitalized. He did not know where he would go when he was well enough to be released.
The alternatives for an elderly person in need of help are few. Many senior citizens spend their last days in nursing homes. Some try to return to their own homes but find them too much to care for by themselves.
Fortunately for Dan Noble, he now says, he made a friend of Vincent F. Goodsell, director of the Prince George's Department of Aging. Goodsell knew of the Little Missionary Brothers of the Sacred Heart (LMBSH).
The LMBSH maintains two homes for the abandoned elderly in the county, one in Hyattsville, the other in Riverdale. When Goodsell called and asked if there were room for another person, Brother Augustine, one of the two brothers in the Hyattsville home, found a place.
"Dan was lonely," said Brother Augustine, who is 23 and has been working with the elderly for all the six years he has been in the order. "There were not many people around to help him, and his apartment was obviously too crowded. This is a nice, home-like family atmosphere here, an alternative to the nursing home."
The brotherhood, founded by Brother Miguel Rascon, cares for elderly men who are termed "abandoned" by society. To live in the homes, elderly men must have no families or relatives to help them, they must be medically well, mentally alert and ambulatory.
"We get 10 to 15 calls per week for places for elderly persons," said Brother Augustine.
One of several new ideas in alternative care of the elderly, both public and private "group homes" for senior citizens offer a situation where the senior "can be better able to cope with life," said Goodsell.
"The nursing home is the last place to go. If we can keep 100 people out of a nursing home, you can save that many from premature death, you can save the taxpayers," he said.
In the last session of the Maryland State General Assembly, legislation was passed to further ease the burden on the elderly. The Protective Services Public Guardian Act gives local or state offices of the aging the authority to be appointed as public guardians of persons 65 and over.
Persons whose mental and physical disabilities make them unable to care for their basic needs and who have no friends or relatives available to assist them would be eligible for home care, day care, chore services, transportation, emergency arrangements and other health and social services under this legislation.
Bernard Popick, coordinator for the state office of aging, stressed that "guardianship should be considered only as a last resort" and that "it should be preferable to provide services to clients in their own homes."
"Research findings in the field of gerontology show that a change of abode usually leads to accelerated deterioration of the elderly."
Robert Prangley, of the county's department on aging, reiterates this necessity of home care. "As we keep them from being institutionalized, and by guarding their rights, they keep hope."
The county offers other programs for home assistance for the elderly, including some visitation. Currently 24 senior citizens visit other senior citizens in their homes throughout the county.
Georgie Holden, one of the senior citizen visitors, sees eight elderly people each week. "We can tell them about their legal rights under social security, give them information on property tax relief. We write letters and, in general, become a listening post. It helps them unload their feelings."
"There is a great deal of discrimination toward the elderly," said Brother Augustine of the LMBSH homes. "They can do so many things themselves and we let them utilize the skills they have. You have to give the elderly their independence. If not, they begin to regress mentally.
"In an institution, elderly people feel they are just one of many. They say, 'What can I do in competition with them all.'"
The home spends approximately $4,500 a year per person, excluding the brothers' time, said Brother Augustine. Each "guest," as they call the elderly men living with them, pays according to his ability. The brotherhood is currently planning to build a permanent home for 50 abandoned elderly persons focused around a senior work and activity center.
The home on Ray Road is large and rambling, the seven bedrooms and living areas are filled with plants and overstuffed furniture backed with lace doilies.
A chapel next to the dining room is open every day for prayer and the guests go out for mass. Brother Augustine stressed that religious affiliation or involvement is not a requirement to live in the home.
Dan Noble says he is happy at Ray Road house. "It's been wonderful," he said. A small man with twinkling eyes, Noble with quick to add, "Three meals a day, a bed, all kinds of services. It's just like a family here.