Underground Railroad


| September-October 2008


A new Underground Railroad is shepherding folks to freedom. Like its antebellum precursor, this network of good Samaritans navigates societal roadblocks to offer safe passage to those stripped of independence. In this 21st-century rendition, though, the freedom seekers are disabled people stashed away in nursing homes to wait out their lives among the country’s elderly. 

New Mobility (May 2008) reports that, when faced with disabling injuries that raid their income and burden their families, many people end up in nursing homes as a last-ditch option, unaware of independent-living centers or how to manage the maze of Social Security, Medicaid, Section 8 housing, and personal care–assistance programs. 

That’s where the Underground Railroad comes in. Since the early 1990s, advocates have been helping people move from nursing homes in Tennessee—which New Mobility labels a black hole when it comes to disability services—to independent living in Colorado. In other cases, the journey is much shorter, but no less significant: an intra-city trip from a nursing home to a local apartment. 

To prepare for the move, people get homework assignments such as securing valid identification, applying for benefits, and learning the ropes of public transportation. Breaking the cycle of dependence is demanding, but worth the effort. Now, says 50-year-old Devoe Mack, who moved from a Memphis nursing home to an assisted-living apartment in Denver, “I’m living, not just existing.”