Column: Artist, 95, sells her paintings to help pay assisted living bill

Patricia Barnett, 95, set up a painting studio in her assisted living facility but no longer can afford to live there.
(Scott Barnett)

It is a sad state of affairs when a 95-year-old woman is forced to turn to painting and selling her artwork to ward off discharge from an assisted living facility.

Patricia Barnett, who turns 96 in October, racked up a lifetime of civic service.

She delivered Meals on Wheels, supported a home for abused women, donated her graphic arts talents to nonprofit causes. Over the years, the Cornell University graduate campaigned for welfare rights, clean water and other environmental issues.

More to the point, her resumé shows a history of fighting for housing for the needy, both as past president of a New York agency set up solely to fund affordable housing and as the head of her state’s League of Women Voters, through which she also campaigned for fair rent and low-cost housing.

Now the San Diego resident of 49 years finds herself in desperate need of those services she spent years trying to secure for others.

Barnett’s legacy of civil service has been carried on in San Diego by her son, Scott Barnett, a familiar face in the local community.

He was a Del Mar City Council member at age 21, led the San Diego County Taxpayers Association when it established its trademark Golden Fleece and Watchdog awards to disclose government boondoggles and try to keep spending in check.

He founded a research service called the Taxpayers Advocate and served for four years on the San Diego Unified School District board.

Scott’s mother lived with him in her senior years. But four falls in 2016, failing health and increasing frailty have made assisted living and ongoing care a necessity. Now she is running out of money.

Barnett spent her life being frugal and careful with her finances, running a small graphic design business, saving for retirement and paying premiums for long-term health care insurance. But she couldn’t foresee the 2008 stock market crash, nor did she anticipate living well into her 90s.

In desperation, Scott, along with his brother, David, and sister, Catherine Anderson, set up a GoFundMe campaign in late April to help their mother with food, rent and basic bills. To date, it has generated slightly more than $3,000.

Barnett explained in her GoFundMe appeal: “The economic crash in 2008 wiped out half of my lifetime savings and forced me to sell my home. Now, the remainder of my savings and long-term care insurance policy has run out.”

Her long-term health insurance coverage ended in April, leaving her primarily dependent on her monthly Social Security check of about $2,300 to pay some medical expenses and a monthly assisted living facility bill of about $5,700.

“After a lifetime of self-sufficiency, I am asking for your help to stay in assisted living,” she wrote.

Originally, Barnett’s children had added information about her career in community service to her GoFundMe bio but she made them trim it out: “She did not want us ‘bragging’ about her,” Scott says.

Her touching appeal surely represents the story of the parents of many of today’s baby boomers and Gen-Xers. These are senior citizens who worked and saved throughout their lives but have been overrun by the inflationary cost of living and rising cost of goods following the pandemic.

Social Security benefits have not kept up, making it difficult to make ends meet in costly states such as California.

The lack of affordable assisted living facilities is putting an economic strain on their children and grandchildren already burdened with their own financial obligations. Or as Scott puts it, “It’s a ticking time bomb for us boomers. I just turned 60.”

Barnett, who attended classes at the Toledo Museum of Fine Arts in her teens, had stored her paint brushes after suffering a stroke in 2004. But she dusted them off in 2019 and, despite inoperable cataracts in one eye, is now turning out a colorful painting every eight to 10 days.

She has finished about 150 artworks since entering assisted living 3½ years ago.

Scott posted an album of “Grandma Pat’s” paintings on Facebook. Many are whimsical, bold landscapes bursting with colorful flowers and patterns.

Her family connected her to a website that sells her art for wall decor, T-shirts, mugs, beach towels and other items. But returns to the artist are small.

David Barnett has been working with her Brookdale Senior Living facility, which has waived some late fees and offered a small rent reduction or placement in a slightly less expensive room or more economical sister facility. But the rent cost still outstrips her income.

“If residents cannot comply with the payment requirements of their residency agreement, we try to help them find a workable solution,” explained Heather Hunter, Brookdale communications manager in Tennessee. She said help can include referrals to other providers and information regarding other types of assistance.

“A Medi-Cal-funded facility (for low-income residents) is currently the only option for her,” says Scott, whose mother has been approved for Medi-Cal. “We started calling as soon as it was clear that she would be out of money (in April). The number of available beds is significantly less than the need. So there are long waiting lists.”

Sunita Upchurch, the county’s long-term care ombudsman, says there are less costly options that may not be on a family’s radar. Along with four- or six-bed home care facilities, the elderly can be placed in senior living communities and senior apartments where they are visited by home health care nurses and linked to Meals on Wheels food delivery. They also can be enrolled in and transported to adult day care programs.

“By 2030, Californians 60 and older will comprise one-quarter of the population,” says Blanca Castro, long-term care ombudsman with the California Department of Aging. “Older adults who rely solely on Social Security for their income on average receive $1,200 per month, which must go to pay for all essential needs.”

The department has helped draft a 2030 state Master Plan for Aging with a top goal of addressing rental cost and making investments in affordable housing. But that is years away.

Scott calls his family’s GoFundMe campaign a Hail Mary attempt to hopefully fill the gap. Ultimately, he says, his mother will have a roof over her head but surely not with the luxury of space to be able to paint in her room.

“It’s been stressful,” says Barnett, who is not sleeping well. “I wake up and worry about where I am going to live.”