Terminally ill woman to stay in foreclosed home until she dies

12/18/2011 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:35 AM

Pale afternoon light filled the small bedroom where Claire Findley lay immobile in a hospital bed, an intravenous line running into her arm. An orchid bloomed on the dresser, a gift from a friend who visited over the weekend. Nearby were her breathing machine and a suctioning device. Next to her bed was the cot where her husband, Luther, sleeps every night.

She learned this past week that her last wish, to die in the modest Fair Oaks house where she and Luther have lived since 1996, will be possible.

"I'm ready to die," said Claire, her voice strangled and hushed.

At 59, she is in the late stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and requires 24-hour care. The illness has left her almost unable to speak, quadriplegic and in constant pain. Eventually, it will rob her of the ability to swallow and breathe.

"She'd like to go to sleep and not wake up, and see Jesus," said her husband. "She's worked so hard and so long, and she's worn out."

The Findleys lost their house to foreclosure in March because Luther, a 55-year-old contractor, hasn't worked since the end of 2007 – and because the income limits required for Claire to maintain her Medi-Cal coverage at no share of cost meant that he couldn't pursue new employment.

Bank of America, which held their mortgage, agreed this week not to evict Luther until after Claire dies.

Their situation shows what can happen when a medical crisis meets the foreclosure crisis and the spiraling effects of the recession. As a result, they represent an especially desperate economic reality: bankrupt, facing terminal illness and, until recently, coping with the stress of possible homelessness.

"This story and others like it point to just how low the income threshold is for public programs and just how poor you have to be to qualify for the most basic public support," said Jean Ross, California Budget Project executive director.

For the bulk of this decade, medical debt has been a leading cause of personal bankruptcy, contributing to at least 60 percent of filings by 2007, according to a 2009 Harvard University study.

But job loss and soaring foreclosure rates have played a heavy role in the Sacramento region's bankruptcies in the past few years, said Auburn attorney Judson Henry, who handled the Findleys' Chapter 7 filing in July.

The Findleys' dual medical and financial crises brought them to the brink of homelessness in what doctors say are Claire's final months of life and left them pleading for help.

"It's a terrible, terrible case," said Margaret Reilly, Sacramento region program manager for the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program.

Joining forces

As newlyweds in 1990, the Findleys overcame drug and alcohol addiction by turning to faith. He was a construction worker. She was working as a dancer in the bar where they met.

But they committed to one another and to living a sober life, and they committed to their church, Carmichael Seventh-day Adventist. And within a few years, they were living with their three children – hers, his and theirs – in a small house on the Fair Oaks street where Luther was raised.

He worked as a roofer for the San Juan Unified School District before joining relatives as a partner in a small construction company. Claire became a certified nursing assistant and found work in the Sutter hospital system.

"Claire is the type of friend who has a deep spirituality," said longtime friend Kathy Gouveia. "You can rely on her and trust her to keep you straight. If you were struggling with something, she was good at getting you back in line."

Under other circumstances, the Findleys would have weathered the tough recession years fairly well. Even if Luther lost his employment in the hard-hit construction industry, Claire's health care job would have provided a steady income and benefits for the family.

But slowly Claire was losing strength in her hands and arms. By 2004, she began noticing that it was harder and harder for her to push her medical cart down the hospital corridor.

"I didn't know why," she said.

Neither did her doctors. They initially diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar problems, and she underwent several surgeries, which put the Findleys deeply into debt.

In 2005, unable to continue opening prescription bottles and lifting patients because of the growing weakness in her arms, she quit her nursing assistant job.

Thinking she would recover and return to work, they refinanced their house in 2006 for $234,000, said Luther, taking out more than $50,000 immediately to pay for Claire's medical costs and another $50,000 home equity line of credit to cover future bills.

"We didn't know what was going on with her then," said Luther. "Our construction business was doing real well. Our business was real successful. And we thought she'd be able to go back to work one day."

A slow unraveling

Early in 2007, Claire was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive degenerative illness also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It was a devastating diagnosis: The disease – which has no known cause or cure – slowly destroys patients' muscle movement, leaving them paralyzed, then killing them.

When Luther's construction company, which specialized in kitchen counter installation, went under in late 2007, he decided to stay at home and care for Claire. Their only income since then has been the $700 a month she receives in Supplemental Security Income disability payments and the $1,100 he makes as her In-Home Supportive Services caregiver.

No way could they continue to afford paying $1,500 each month on their mortgage. They haven't made a payment in almost four years.

Financially, there really wasn't much choice.

Receiving SSI automatically qualifies Claire for Medi-Cal, the state's health care program for low-income people. But failing to maintain a household income near poverty level would put both her SSI and Medi-Cal in jeopardy, said Amy Williams, Legal Services of Northern California managing attorney for health services.

And income from any source – even gifts from concerned family or friends who wanted to help with the mortgage – would reduce the amount of her SSI grant.

"Anything that's given to her, she can keep only up to $20," said Williams. "The rest is counted against her SSI grant. That's her link to Medi-Cal. So if her SSI grant is reduced to zero, she'd lose her Medi-Cal coverage."

Members of their church have done what they can to support the Findleys. Teens from church mow their yard, said their pastor, the Rev. Keith Jacobson, and a team of longtime friends helps care for Claire.

And the Tuesday evening Bible study that once met in various members' homes now meets weekly at Claire's bedside.

She can only move one thumb now.

"So many things have been stripped from her in this disease process," said Jan Brizendine, a friend and registered nurse who cares for Claire twice a week.

"This is the one thing that comforts her, being at home. For her to lose that would be a giant blow."

Together for the last days

The threat of eviction loomed over the Findleys all fall, delayed only a few months by their bankruptcy filing.

Their 2009 attempt to work with the bank through a hardship program failed because Claire was in too much pain to attend the required credit counseling sessions. Last year, Bank of America's nationwide moratorium on foreclosures gave them another temporary break.

But eventually, said Luther, the couple fell more than $40,000 behind in their mortgage payments. By the end of March, the bank foreclosed.

As the county posted eviction notices on their door, Luther begged the bank for more time.

"I deal with whoever is on the phone tree," said Luther. "Sometimes, I get somebody in India. Sometimes, it's somebody in St. Louis. It's whoever you get hold of. And they all say different things."

But early last week, after receiving an inquiry from The Bee about the case, Bank of America put the eviction on indefinite hold, a spokeswoman said.

"They called and said it's on hold until Claire dies, and then they'll give me additional time to grieve before I have to be out," Luther said. "Praise God. It's a miracle. It's a big relief.

"They said I should spend time with my wife and take care of her."

If the past half-dozen years have, in retrospect, presented a timeline of slowly building disaster, the Findleys insist it's also been a time of emotional connection.

"It's brought us so close to Jesus and to each other," said Luther. "We were so busy before. I was working 12 hours a day. Claire was working at night. We were like ships passing in the night. We never saw each other.

"In some ways, this has been a blessing."

So they wait, together, in the home where they've lived for the past 15 years.

In the front yard, a swirl of brilliant maple leaves floated toward the ground. Inside, in the bedroom where Claire Findley spends her last days trapped in her body and waiting for the end, her husband lifted her pale blue blanket and adjusted her hands, then her feet, to make her a little more comfortable.

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