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Two Pioneers in Disability Rights and Aging in American Pass Away


We note the passing of two significant figures in the fields of disability rights and elder care: Lois Curtis and Jane Gross.

Lois Curtis

Lois Curtis, who spent much of her teens and 20s institutionalized in state institutions in Georgia due to her mental illness and intellectual disability, was the lead plaintiffs in the landmark disability rights case, Olmstead v. L. C. (98-536) 527 U.S. 581 (1999) that gave elderly and disabled individuals the right to live outside of institutions. Ms. Curtis had met legal services attorney Sue Jamieson and then kept asking her help getting out of the institution she was living in at the time.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that by favoring institutional living over care at home, state Medicaid programs violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, tens of thousands of people with disabilities and elderly needing care have been able to live outside of nursing homes and other institutions.

But the fight still goes on. According to the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission, there are still 700,000 people in 40 states on waiting lists for Medicaid-covered care in the community. As we recently reported, seven Massachusetts residents with disabilities and the Massachusetts Senior Action Council have brought suit to force MassHealth to pay for their care outside of nursing homes.

Lois Curtis died in her own home outside of Atlanta at age 55 from pancreatic cancer. You can hear her voice and about her impact in a National Public Radio story here.

Jane Gross

After an early, groundbreaking career as one of the first female sports reporters to gain access to National and American Basketball Association locker rooms, Jane Gross began writing about aging for The New York Times, including a book about her own mother’s decline, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves.

From 2008 to 2014, Ms. Gross wrote the “New Old Age” blog for The New York Times reporting on all aspects of aging in our modern United States. Her last post, of interest to elder law attorneys, was about clients procrastinating in completing their estate plans.

Ms. Gross found her mother’s decline to be something of a blessing as well as its own form of tragedy, because it brought them closer together. Her obituary in The New York Times quotes her experience in visiting her mother at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale:

My happiest times with my mother were spent here. Despite the unavoidable institutional odors, the unpredictable rantings of residents, the ‘feeders’ spooning mush into the mouths of once capable men and women, the row upon row of wheelchairs in the TV lounge, in this nursing home my mother and I had an opportunity to know and love each other in a way we never had before.

Ms. Gross died at age 75 as the result of a traumatic brain injury after a series of falls. She was living in the same Riverdale nursing home where her mother spent her final years.

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