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Budget Cuts Force Calif. Couple to Cope With Chronic Illness Without Help

Created: 14 August, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023

 “First, he walked slower, then with a cane and now he’s in a wheelchair,” said Carol Walton about her husband of 52 years, professional bass player, music educator and author Ortiz Walton.

 The Waltons are among the 22.9 million households in the United States that struggle daily to maintain an elderly relative or sick child at home—and out of a nursing home—for as long as possible, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.

 The U.S. is the only economically advanced country that does not cover long-term care for middle-income people like Ortiz, who have chronic conditions. Only those in poverty, who qualify for Medicaid (called MediCal in California), and a small percentage of Americans with limited long-term care insurance may obtain help. Long-term care is currently not included in federal health-care reform bills.

 Since 2006, Ortiz, 75, has lost his ability to play the bass due to progressive supernuclear palsy, which saps his muscle control. “He used to go outside with a walker, but he has less and less energy to do that now,” said Carol, 74.

 A half-century ago Ortiz not only became the Boston Symphony’s youngest musician, but also its first African-American member. Eventually, he also earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and published his book, “Black, White & Blue: A Sociological Survey of the Use and Misuse of Afro-American Music.”

 Besides performing internationally, Ortiz devoted much of his time to social justice issues, holding benefit concerts to promote voting rights and working with Carol, a retired HeadStart program evaluator, to promote multiethnic education and help young people in their struggle against substance abuse.

 Because the Waltons’ moderate income does not qualify Ortiz for MediCal, the couple pays hundreds of dollars a month for costs associated with chronic illness, such as medications, his wheelchair and hospital bed. They cannot afford caregiving services, so Carol must help Ortiz move, bathe, dress, and eat.

 The couple had hoped to continue receiving some therapy and other services from nonprofit public health organizations, but California budget cuts have severely reduced or completely eliminated much of that assistance.

 The Waltons’ isolation is risky in emergencies. In July, Carol passed out while trying to help Ortiz, who had fallen. Fortunately, Ortiz did not need emergency care, but Carol was shaken by the thought that no one else was available to help him while she was unconscious.

 Ortiz still hopes to play his bass in the future. When their finances improve, the Waltons hope to find an electric bass that could strap around his neck so he wouldn’t have to hold the instrument upright. With determination, Ortiz said, “I feel sad that I have to give up the bass—temporarily.”