Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Queers and the New Flesh Trade: Nursing Homes

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

With the Republicans on the ropes, the main Democratic candidates have finally been emboldened to take on health care. They're getting kudos for proposing universal care, with expanded federal health insurance, plenty of tax credits, and limits on Big Pharma.

What I didn't see, at least in Hillary's plan, was anything to do with "end-of-life" care, or whatever gentler phrase you can think of for nursing homes. By any name, nursing homes are the new flesh trade, the ultimate rag and bone shop where investors by and sell living meat and no one gets out alive.

They've always been bad. Have you seen the places? Have you smelled them? I've visited a bunch of the homes I'd end up in in New York. The stench hits you when you walk in, disinfectant, urine, sweat, misery and old cabbage soup.

There's no privacy and no private property that you can't fit in a pocket because you can't lock your door and stuff walks away. Keeping even a little CD player, or an ipod is almost impossible. The administration controls your eating and sleeping and shitting and bathing.

Add in the queer factor and hell itself looks appetizing by comparison. Imagine being stuck at the mercy of God-fearing, Christian nurses who already think dykes and fags should burn. That's my nightmare. No room to call my own. Even my body belongs to them. They manipulate it at when they can be bothered to.

Screw aging. We can talk about the perks of wisdom, but really, who looks forward to the mental slippage, the physical parts going one by one, the vulnerability? I do what I can to stay healthy, but there are limits. And there are limits to what our partners can do for us, if we're lucky enough to have them.

One in four of Americans end their lives in nursing homes. I'd rather die. In fact, it's the only point in common I have with my mother who says, "Just shoot me," when the aging quandary comes up. I offered once to do it then and there, but she didn't take me up on it.

I used to think I'd be okay if only I had the money for a private home. But now it seems that middle- and upper-class people are doomed, too.

As baby boomers age, nursing homes have become a new favorite of investment groups. Ronald E. Silva, president and CEO of Fillmore Capital told the New York Times, "There's essentially unlimited consumer demand as the baby boomers age ... I've never seen a surer bet."

Once the investment groups buy a place, the rush starts to decrease costs, and maximize profit, usually by dumping staff. The results are unsurprising.

Investigating private homes, the Times found people dead from preventable causes: complications of bedsores, tracheotomy tubes that were clogged because the staff was cut so far down in the name of profit nobody bothered to do basic checking of these bodies temporarily warehoused.

Ironic how we outlaw prostitution where sex workers are at least selling their own bodies, but we happily trade in buildings full of human beings. If they were on ships, they would be slaves. As it is, incapacitated people in nursing homes are more like pork bellies. I wouldn't be surprised if they were sold by the pound.

Seniors should be up in arms. Everybody should. We should pressure the democratic candidates who think it's enough to court the big voting block of seniors with promises to reduce the costs of prescription drugs and health screenings.

And good luck to 'em. This industry is as secretive and barely regulated as the old Ma Bell or for that matter, military contracting. They protect themselves with Byzantine corporate structures that make it impossible to hold anyone accountable.

But if we don't push for it, no one will. People already trapped in the industry are not able to advocate for themselves. They're already physically or mentally disabled, just plain tired, or hopeless.

Don't console yourself with hopes of alternative places, like assisted living complexes. Increasingly there are queer ones, but they are out of reach for most of us. A small home in the queer retirement community Palms of Manasota in Florida reportedly costs upward of $130,000. I can't afford to pitch even a tent there. And who wants to live in Florida anyway?

I'm not the only concerned one. In the 2006 MetLife "Out and Aging" lesbians were afraid their savings would run out. Fags were afraid of illness and dependence. Both were concerned that healthcare professionals wouldn't treat them with dignity and respect as they aged.

Frankly, we should all be terrified. Aging people are crap in America and old queers are even lower than straights. Maybe it's time for aging to move to the front of our agenda.

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