Diagnosis: Eviction

An out-of-state company mismanaged its Mill Valley nursing home, then closed it down, casting dozens of elderly patients to the winds. Within months, 10 of them were dead.

During the patients' and families' struggle against Lenox, an esprit de corps emerged during regularly held family council meetings. As it became clear that Lenox wanted to sell the home, three young women who had been attending meetings came up with the idea of forming a nonprofit corporation to buy and run the center.

The plan portended a truly happy ending. Though the Mill Valley Healthcare Center had gone through a string of private owners during the previous decade, with the attendant varying levels of care, it was widely seen by people in Mill Valley as a community resource. High school kids regularly participated in county-sponsored programs held at the center, and many town residents had parents, aunts, friends there.

At first, family-council members tried to talk an established nonprofit nursing chain into buying the facility.

"We tried to find an established provider and, failing to do so, literally one of our members said, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.' At first the idea made me laugh. But I came to believe that it really was possible," says Liz Rottger, a Marin County employee who was attending the family-council meetings.

Rottger, Kelly Philpott, a newly minted attorney who had once worked as a programs coordinator at the Healthcare Center, and Julia Abramson, whose father lived at the home, began to meet and scheme. Marin County is flush with nonprofit foundations that just might be willing to fund such a worthy cause, they mused.

"During the month prior to the closure, something very special was happening," Rottger recalls. "This was an opportunity to create a model nursing home in the United States. It would be community owned and operated. Profit margins had to be there, because you can't run something purely on faith, but that wouldn't have been the highest priority. We were going to use models of care with hospice, things that are cutting edge in terms of activities, so people don't feel that they are being warehoused. The idea was to make those residents who were there to the end feel that this was really their home."

Miraculously, the trio managed to gain commitments from nonprofit funding sources to meet the $2 million asking price for the home. They convinced a local realtor to work pro bono as their negotiating agent. While Lenox owned the license and the lease on the nursing home, the actual building was owned by the Auguello brothers, a pair of East Bay real-estate developers.

"Our offer went in. Everything was handled in a very professional manner -- it's not a lot different than when you go out to buy a house. This counter offer came in over the weekend, and I think there was a week that went by before they got back to us," recalls Rottger. "On the 23rd, they called and said they had decided to accept the other offer."

The home was sold to Eve Murphy, who owns a couple of homes in Santa Barbara. Murphy did not return several calls for comment. So it is unclear whether low-income elderly will ever again live at 505 Miller Ave.

The home was closed, its residents becoming a diaspora throughout the Bay Area.

Among the scattered was Dorothy Williams, a gracious, plain-spoken woman in a flower-print dress, who had been head of the Mill Valley Healthcare residents' association.

The final defeat didn't come as a complete surprise to Williams, though she had held out hope. Williams, like her former neighbors at 505 Miller Ave., came of age during World War II. She went to live in Germany in 1950, when her husband worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service providing visas for the war brides American GIs were bringing home. Because she saw the postwar carnage firsthand, she wasn't left with the American optimistic, triumphal sense of the great war that is the stuff of popular folklore. She knows that all stories, even heroic ones, don't have necessarily happy endings.

"It was very sad, seeing the cities in ruins," she recalls. "It was devastating, seeing the hunger and the deprivation."

Williams moved from Europe to the East Coast, and then to the Bay Area in 1955, where she worked as an accountant for Pacific Motor Trucking Co. in Oakland for 16 years before she was forced to retire after two rounds of heart surgery. She lived for a decade at a Walnut Creek apartment complex for retirees. Then, with the onset of Parkinson's disease and continued heart trouble, she moved to a nursing home. That was hard, she says.

"I hate having to ask for help," she says.
Still, even though she was at the Mill Valley home for less than a year, she quickly made herself a circle of friends. She became head of the center's residents' association, and regularly attended meetings of the center's family council, keeping close track of the ongoing battle with Lenox. After the diaspora, she found a room at the Pine Ridge Care Center in San Rafael, the third nursing home she's been moved to in during the last two years.

She's tried to make friends at her new home, too, but it's difficult.
"I've tried, but they're either asleep, or they're in another world. It's lonely," she says. "That's why I do crosswords and read magazines."

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