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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 01:22 pm

The advocate

Brigit Dyer-Reynolds found her calling, speaking out for the state’s elderly

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Brigit Dyer-Reynolds oversees Illinois Community Advocates for Residents’ Empowerment, which serves 8,000 nursing-home residents in 12 counties.
PHOTO BY LARRY CROSSETT
Untitled Document Brigit Dyer-Reynolds thought she was done with social-service work. She’d performed well during her time with Catholic Charities, but it had been a lot of responsibility and, at times, a lot of frustration. When a little antique shop on Amos Street came up for sale, just as she was looking for a change, it seemed the perfect opportunity to move on to the next phase of her life. Antiques had always held a fascination for the 40-year-old mother of two. She’d gotten that from her mother and grandmother but had never had a chance to do anything with it, beyond touring flea markets and road shows. Now, with her own shop and her husband’s blessing, she was getting the chance. Yet in the year and a half she’d spent selling, buying, and maintaining the antique jewelry, glassware, and furniture that populated the store, Dyer-Reynolds had not felt fulfilled. “I missed working with people,” she says. “I like nice things and antiques, but I’m more interested in people by far — I realize that now.”
So, despite having achieved what she’d thought was her dream, Dyer-Reynolds found herself perusing the employment ads each day. Soon she happened across an opening for someone to oversee I CARE — the regional arm of the state ombudsman program, which advocates for seniors in nursing homes. The job requirements were a match for her education and experience.
Seeing that ad was like finding the puzzle piece that makes the whole image come clear. Her Catholic upbringing, her master’s degree in sociology, her time with Catholic Charities, and even the time she’d spent at her store, where she often worked with seniors and was drawn into their stories — it had all been leading her to this.

She was born Brigit Dyer, in Chicago, in 1963. Her father, Briggs Dyer, was an artist and a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. “I’m told he was on the forefront of the abstract-expressionist movement in the Midwest in the mid-20th century,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “LeRoy Neiman was a student of his.”
Brigit was 6 when her parents’ marriage ended, in 1969. She moved with her brother, Tony, and their mother, Janice, to Saginaw, Mich., where they were raised amid family in the Catholic Church. Janice remarried and had two more children. Briggs Dyer died of heart failure in 1970. It was impressed on Dyer-Reynolds from a young age that part of the Catholic mission was to help the poor and elderly. “I was taught it wasn’t good enough to believe in Jesus,” she says. “You also have to be like Jesus. I took that to heart.”
She was always a good student. After high school, she attended Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, where she worked as a waitress while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 1989, Dyer-Reynolds was recruited to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, to work on her doctorate. She met David Reynolds, also a graduate student. They married and had two kids, Sam and Emile, while attending school. “We were both working toward teaching at universities,” Dyer Reynolds explains, “but then David’s father passed away, leaving his mom needing help in Springfield. At the same time, I had two little kids and no family support in Carbondale. So we decided to move, both to support his mom and to have family around.” It was 1996. Dyer-Reynolds didn’t get to finish her Ph.D., but she was content: “We loved Springfield. We wanted to raise our kids here.”
David found work with the Illinois Department of Education as a computer programmer. Though well educated, Dyer-Reynolds found nothing in her field. She had to take a sales position at Famous-Barr to get into the wage pool and work up from there. “We really struggled for a while,” she recalls. The family began attending Mass at St. Agnes Church. Although David and Brigit had drifted from the church years ago, the responsibilities of parenthood brought them back. “I wanted the kids to grow up in the faith,” Dyer-Reynolds says. In 1998, Dyer-Reynolds was working as an academic advisor at Robert Morris College when that school consolidated and she found herself looking for work. She saw an ad for a crisis-office supervisor at Catholic Charities. “When I saw that job opening, I was excited,” she says, “because I could put my faith into action and do what I wanted to do — be an advocate for vulnerable people.”
At Catholic Charities, Dyer-Reynolds worked with people in economic crisis. “I worked under Sister Ann Carlino, a winner of the Copley award,” she says. “She was the coordinator of community services. I worked under her for about four months, and then she informed us she was leaving for a mission in Africa.”
Dyer-Reynolds was surprised when Carlino encouraged her to apply for the job vacancy. “I saw her as supremely capable and didn’t know if I was ready,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “She had confidence in me that I was.”
Dyer-Reynolds interviewed for the position and got it. “Suddenly I was supervising the crisis office, St. John’s Breadline, the Holy Family Food Pantry, St. Claire’s Health Clinic . . . I was supervising six or seven programs,” she recalls, “but I really enjoyed it. I loved it, and I believed in our mission.”
Dyer-Reynolds handled herself well at Catholic Charities. Sarah Delano-Pavlick, then a member of the Catholic Charities advisory board, says, “Brigit was a delight to work with. She was a go-getter — very persistent and always advocating.”
Four years into the job, though, much of Dyer-Reynolds’ enthusiasm was gone. “I was a little burned out,” she concedes. “Catholic Charities could be bureaucratic — the wheels turned slowly, and I had to go through five levels of chain of command. It was a big responsibility, and I had young children at home still.”
In the meantime, she had begun to frequent an antique shop on Amos Street, owned by friends of her husband’s family. Now that shop came up for sale. “I thought that was my passion, and I wanted to follow it,” Dyer-Reynolds says.
CARE (Illinois Community Advocates for Residents’ Empowerment), the program Dyer-Reynolds assumed charge of when she put her antique shop up for sale, operates under the auspices of the Illinois Department on Aging. It is run, however, by the Illinois Retired Teacher’s Association Foundation. The foundation bid for the service in 1992 and has held it since. 
I CARE directly serves 8,000 nursing-home residents in 12 counties, but because it encompasses the capital city it has a palpable effect on the lives of more than 120,000 residents and their families throughout the state. Dyer-Reynolds is well aware of the scope of her responsibility. “I had always thought that, intellectually, I was up to any challenge that was put before me,” she says, “but this position has challenged me more than anything ever before.”
In 2004 there was an incident at a Springfield facility in which a resident in his forties assaulted an elderly woman. A concerned family member contacted I CARE. It came to light that the man had been in prison for attempted murder and as an accomplice to murder and that he was on parole at the time of the incident. “I couldn’t get anyone to tell me why a violent ex-con was in a nursing home with frail elderly people,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “I was appalled.”
“No one wanted to acknowledge it was a serious problem,” she continues, “and that next time this man might kill someone. I had people who had loved ones at that home, fearing for their safety. They were saying, ‘What is the ombudsman program going to do about this problem?’
“I talked to my supervisor at the Department on Aging,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “She was a strong advocate to the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Department of Corrections. I think that’s how we finally got the felon out of there.”
Dyer-Reynolds is not sure of the man’s fate but believes that he may have returned to prison after a parole violation. That incident was resolved, but it was not an isolated case. “Right after that assault,” Dyer-Reynolds explains, “there was an assault of a woman in Chicago that got a lot of attention.”
The Chicago Sun-Times published a series of articles highlighting the placement of parolees in nursing homes. The attorney general looked into the phenomenon. Finally Rep. James D. Brosnahan, D-Oak Lawn, proposed legislation requiring all Illinois nursing facilities to identify and report residents with criminal backgrounds. The state ombudsman’s office immediately took up the cause. “When the bill came up,” Dyer-Reynolds explains, “the nursing-home industry felt it was overkill. We had family members come to the Capitol and submit testimony.”
Dyer-Reynolds clarifies her role at the Capitol: “I do this legislative advocacy work on behalf of IALTCO — the Illinois Association of Long Term Care Ombudsmen — an association that I am vice president of. I can’t lobby on behalf of the IRTAF, because it is a not-for-profit, so I ‘educate’ on behalf of the statewide association.”
Sally Patrone is the state ombudsman. She comments on the efforts to pass Brosnahan’s bill: “Brigit was instrumental in that effort — at the Capitol, working for passage. She made sure the legislators knew there were residents who were offenders.”
The bill passed and became law in 2006. Previously it had been estimated that Illinois nursing homes had a total of 50 to 100 felons living in them. After the initial background checks (on current residents) were completed, the count stood at roughly 1,100. “You have people in their eighties, and maybe they stole a car in their teens,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “Those aren’t the people we’re worried about. My concern — as well as the other advocates — is that nursing homes were becoming dumping grounds for felons and parolees. We saw that residents were at risk. We advocated on behalf of that law and testified on behalf of that.”
The program has been in place for a while now. “I think residents are safer,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “If a home admits someone with a criminal background, they need to show how they’re providing supervision, treatment, or therapy. “Nursing homes do the background check,” she says. “If it’s positive for a felony conviction, they send that to the Department of Public Health for a risk analysis. If the risk is low, no extra supervision is required. If it’s medium, they can admit — but they have to provide supervision. The person can’t be placed with a roommate.”
Dyer-Reynolds counts this as a success story for the state of Illinois and for the ombudsman program. She, and the rest of the ombudsman team, aren’t resting up, though. There are many more hills to climb. “This is one that’s brought everyone together,” she begins. “Nursing homes, families, advocates — we’re trying to get the personal-needs allowance raised. Currently, if a resident is on public aid, they get only $30 a month from the Department of Healthcare and Family Services for personal needs. “Last summer we introduced a campaign to raise that to $90 per resident. We spoke to legislators, had a petition drive across the state . . . ”
Patrone elaborates: “Our statewide program developed a petition. Brigit and her staff went to facility after facility, and got signatures. We ended up compiling over 31,000 signatures in favor of the bill. She also worked for the bill’s passage at the Capitol.”
“People don’t understand what you have to pay for,” Dyer-Reynolds says animatedly. “The majority of the people aren’t using that money to buy cigarettes. They use it for birthday cards, personal-care items, hair care. . . . Nursing homes aren’t required to supply disposable undergarments. You have to buy them out of your 30 dollars every month. Nursing homes make them pay for cable, etc. Everybody has come together to say our residents need more.”
She illustrates: “I love Diet Dr. Pepper. I have a 16-ounce bottle every day. Thirty dollars wouldn’t be enough to buy even that for me.”
Currently four bills are active in the Legislature. Three propose increasing the allowance to $50, and Sen. A.J. Wilhemi, D-Joliet, has proposed $90. “I think we did a good job with our campaign,” Dyer-Reynolds says. “We got people talking, so the Legislature took up the cause.” (Wilhemi’s bill is Senate Bill 1497.) Dyer-Reynolds credits IRTAF with doing an admirable job since taking over I CARE. Margaret Niederer, Ph.D., director of special projects for IRTAF until her retirement last year, brought the program on board and did much to bring it up to its current standard. Dyer-Reynolds tells that story: “Dr. Niederer had a family member in a nursing facility. She had some contact with the ombudsman program and felt there were plenty of retired teachers who would be in nursing homes someday, so she sold the idea to IRTAF. Then she wanted to build up the volunteer base, and she did that. A lot of retired teachers became volunteers.”
The ombudsman program is not a moneymaker, Dyer-Reynolds says: “The foundation has put thousands of dollars every year into the program.”
In July, Dyer-Reynolds was voted Ombudsman of 2006 at the Elder Rights Conference, held in Chicago. “Bob and Phyllis Irvin, from this area, were voted volunteers of year,” she notes. “I CARE has the largest volunteer-ombudsman contingent of any ombudsman program in the state. Volunteers serve as the main liaison between the nursing home residents and the I CARE office.”
People considering becoming volunteers make several visits with a seasoned ombudsman mentor to the facilities they will be spending time at. In addition, they are required to attend six hours of continuing education every year. “Volunteers are the heart and soul of the program, and we could not be successful advocates without their support,” Dyer-Reynolds says.

Dyer-Reynolds no longer sees herself as unfulfilled. Her life is on an even keel. She honors her father’s memory by serving on the board of the Old Capitol Art Fair. Her husband, David, has a permanent appointment at Lincoln Land College, teaching sociology. “He loves the school and the students,” she says. “He’s the happiest I’ve seen him.”
Sam, now 15, is a high-school freshman. He plays football and is in the band and on the honor roll. Emile, 12, is in the seventh grade. She plays the piano and the flute. “A straight-A student,” her proud mother notes. Dyer-Reynolds still has a spot in her heart for antiques, but she knows where her true passion lies. She’s an advocate, and she always will be.
“Can I just mention Bill 3508. . . ?” she asks.
“This one will create a database of nursing homes. Every licensed facility would be required to have a report online, in an easy-to-access format. . . .”

Freelance writer Lawrence Crossett’s profile of Scott Payne of the Inner City Mission appeared in the March 1 edition of Illinois Times.
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