Kadner: 73-year-old feels like ‘dead meat’
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org October 19, 2012 9:14PM
Richard Tolleson, who has lived in his home for 42 years, talks about his problems at his home in Crestwood, IL on Tuesday October 16, 2012. The Village of Crestwood has labeled his house as uninhabitable and he has to leave. He's going to live where his wife is, rehabbing from injury (or illness). | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 22, 2012 6:35AM
Richard Tolleson, 73, and his wife, Emily, 71, need help.
Tolleson, a proud man, is willing to admit that. That’s why he called me.
But whether he’s willing to accept the help he needs, well, that remains an unanswered question.
“The village of Crestwood won’t let me live in my own home,” Tolleson, a retired Cook County sheriff’s police officer, told me. “They’ve declared my house uninhabitable. This is a sad story. I have no future. My wife keeps telling me not to do anything rash, but I say we may as well be dead meat.”
Tolleson’s home was declared uninhabitable because it was cluttered from the floor to near the ceiling with stuff he and his wife collected over a lifetime.
When I visited last week, after out-of-town relatives had spent about four days cleaning, all three bedrooms were still full of clothes, shoes, blankets and cardboard boxes filled with I don’t know what.
I’m told the same was true of a washroom, a laundry room and the front entranceway, which was blocked by all the stuff when Crestwood police and paramedics arrived. They were called to the house Sept. 10 by a neighbor when Tolleson fell and couldn’t get up.
“I don’t know what happened,” Tolleson told me. “I just kind of lost my balance and fell over backward.”
He was taken to a hospital, treated and released. But he wasn’t allowed back into his house.
“They put a sign on my door declaring the place unfit for human occupancy,” he said.
Tolleson’s wife was recovering at Symphony of Crestwood, a post-acute care facility, from the amputation of toes on one of her feet.
“So I’m renting a room to be near her as she recovers,” Tolleson told me. “I’ve got nowhere else to live. And it’s really expensive.”
The Tollesons have health insurance, and he gets a decent pension, “but we’ve pretty well run through our savings with both of us staying at this place. I just want to go home.”
A Crestwood trustee told me that Tolleson is allowed to return to his house during the day to clean it out but can’t remain at night.
The Tollesons have no children. And the only people Tolleson seems to trust are out-of-state relatives who can’t spend a lot of time here.
“We come up and do what we can, but as you can see there’s a lot of things that need to be cleaned out,” said Tolleson’s sister, Jackie Fenstermacher, who was in from Tennessee. “At least there’s a path you can walk through from the kitchen to the bedroom now. When I first got here, you had to walk sideways to get through and I’m not a large person.”
Brian Duffy, Fenstermacher’s partner, told me that during their first trip they took more than 4,500 pounds of stuff out of the house.
“It was all clothes, pretty much,” he said. “No garbage. In fact, we didn’t see any signs of mice or roaches or anything like that. It was just clothes everywhere.”
Tolleson, who is a large man, uses a walker to get around. He insisted that if he were allowed to remain in his home overnight, he could clean it himself, but it seemed to me that he’s in no physical condition to do that.
Village officials tell me they have no plans to evict Tolleson from his house.
“We just want the home put in a condition where people can safely live in it,” Trustee Victor Hirsch said. “I don’t know this man well, but I know he has troubles, and we don’t want to make them worse. We just want to make sure the home is safe. The way it was, paramedics really couldn’t get in there if something happened to them.”
Mrs. Tolleson requires dialysis several days a week.
“We hoarded stuff,” Tolleson admitted. “We should have been tossing things out, and we talked about it but never got around to it.
“But I’ve bought a new stainless steel refrigerator,” he said proudly. “And I had a plumber come out and put in a new kitchen sink and plumbing.”
As he sits at a kitchen table watching his sister and her partner carrying out large garbage bags full of clothes, Tolleson begins to cry.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I never thought it would come to this, you know. I was in the U.S. Air Force for four years. I was a Cook County police officer. I worked all my life.
“And now I’m dead meat. I know how to use a gun. I keep thinking maybe I should just use it on myself. I can’t even keep my home. I thought it was illegal for a government to throw you out of your own home.”
I initially told Tolleson that I would try to find an attorney to represent him without charge. But that was before I found out Crestwood wasn’t trying to evict him.
Now I’m thinking that there might be a church group or veterans organization that might adopt the Tollesons.
Family members told me they’ve reached out to social service agencies and meals-on-wheels programs that will come in to assist if they can get the place cleaned out.
Most of us don’t like to be told what to do, and as people age it becomes harder for them to part with things that take on a greater meaning than they deserve.
If the Tollesons had children, my guess is they would have had a confrontation by now about moving into an assisted-living center. It’s a conversation many of us have had with loved ones, and it isn’t easy and sometimes splits families apart.
Giving up your home, your independence, is tough. I can understand why people don’t want to do it.
“I met my wife at a New Year’s Eve Party in 1964 and fell in love right there,” Tolleson said. “I never in my life thought we would end up like this. It hurts. We got no place to go.
“I just want to be home in my house.”
I know many people will want to sit in judgment of the Tollesons.
I’m hoping there might be others willing to help them.