When Steven Polansky’s father moved into an assisted-living facility in Chevy Chase, Md., in November, his family bought him a hospital bed at the request of the staff there. He died two months later at age 89, and amid all the emotions and logistics surrounding his death, there was the bed to deal with.
It was almost brand-new. And nobody would take it.
Often weighing hundreds of pounds and costing thousands of dollars, hospital beds, electric wheelchairs and other durable medical equipment can pose a problem when their owners die or no longer require them. On its face, it should be easy: Our rapidly aging population has an ongoing need for such equipment, and many families are eager to pass it on, especially when a care facility needs to quickly clear the room for another patient.
But charity organizations often have space limitations or other restrictions that make it impossible to accept the items, leaving families like Polansky’s stuck with the goods.
“They’re not cheap by any stretch, so we wanted to donate it to somebody who could really use it, and it was really difficult,” said Polansky, adding that the bed had cost between $3,000 and $4,000. The assisted-living facility that had requested it was reluctant to reuse it because of liability concerns, he said, and he worried that it would end up in a dump. “We called a bunch of places trying to find somebody who would take it.”
The problem is likely to grow as Americans live longer and the baby boomers enter their 70s and beyond. Some organizations offer services to match donors of durable medical equipment with recipients. IONA Senior Services, a nonprofit organization in the District that provides advocacy and community programs for older adults, has a loan closet that can hold some small items, such as walkers and manual wheelchairs, but the group usually says no to large, bulky ones.
“We get a desperate call twice a month — ‘My mother’s passed away, and we need to get out of her room and we’ve got an electric wheelchair,’ ” said Ann Keeler, the group’s development manager. “They’re stuck with, ‘Do we just put it into a Dumpster?’”
IONA doesn’t take power wheelchairs. “If it’s left unplugged for two weeks, it stops working and needs a new battery, and the battery is quite expensive,” Keeler said.
Funding through the Department of Health and Human Services helps states run reutilization and loan programs for medical devices. In fiscal 2015, more than 64,000 used devices were passed on to new customers through programs across the United States, according to the Center for Assistive Technology Act Data Assistance.
DC Shares, also known as the District of Columbia Disability Equipment Recycling Program, recycles such items as wheelchairs, walkers and bathroom equipment, redistributing 700 to 1,000 items a year to residents with an annual income under $20,000, most of whom are older.
“Do you want these footrests?” asked Frank Rice, a volunteer at the Columbia Heights facility, as he showed an almost-new manual wheelchair to Roberto De Lima, 62. “You’ve got anti-tippers there, so if you’re outside, you won’t flip over.”
De Lima, a retired antiques dealer who has limited use of his legs because of childhood polio and a later accident, hoisted himself from his old, unstable chair into the new one, which belonged to a woman who had barely used it. He smiled and said, “I feel good now.”
The shelves were lined with canes, crutches, walkers and bedside commodes. But the program cannot accept power wheelchairs or hospital beds. “We simply don’t have the space,” said program manager Alicia Johns.
The Maryland Technology Assistance Program uses a database similar to Craigslist for people looking to pass on medical equipment, but it does not store devices. The Virginia Assistive Technology System collaborates with other state agencies, nonprofit groups and other organizations on a statewide network that collects, repairs, matches and distributes items to about 1,500 low-income Virginia residents each year who are uninsured or whose insurance won’t cover the items. They don’t do hospital beds — they are too bulky and hard to transport and store — but there’s an online exchange network where people can list them.
Polansky finally found a home for his father’s bed through IONA. Although it would not fit in IONA’s loan closet, workers there knew of someone who needed one, and that person’s family arranged to have it moved. Only about twice a year do the stars align and a donor with such a large item can be matched with someone who needs it, Keeler said.
For people who need smaller equipment, however, the loan closet can be a money-saver. Betsy Lee, 82, of Adams Morgan got a motorized scooter there two years ago, and when it stopped working, she returned and swapped it for a roller walker. She has also gotten a cane and crutches there.
“I need something to get me around,” said Lee, a retired legal technician who has had both knees replaced and suffers from arthritis in her back. Insurance does not always pay for the items, so she tries to pass the word along to others.
“When I run into something that I know people need, I will come and tell people about it.”