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She Once Advised the President on Aging Issues. Now, She鈥檚 Battling Serious Disability and Depression.
Navigating Aging

She Once Advised the President on Aging Issues. Now, She鈥檚 Battling Serious Disability and Depression.

Nora Super, formerly the executive director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging and director of the Milken Institute's Center for the Future of Aging, suffered a severe spinal cord injury in July. 鈥淚 still have a voice, and I can help people understand what it is to live with physical limitations in a way that I鈥檝e never really understood before,鈥 Super says. (Len Nichols)

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The GoFundMe request jumped out at me as I was scrolling through posts on LinkedIn.

Nora Super, executive director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging and former director of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, was seeking contributions after suffering a severe spinal cord injury.

鈥淩ight now, I have no feeling below the waist. I need lots of equipment to go home from the hospital and live safely and independently,鈥 she wrote in her appeal.

Since coping with disability 鈥 and the cost of coping with disability 鈥 is an enormously important issue for older adults, I wondered if Super would discuss her experiences and try to put them in perspective.

The Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire ran the numbers for me: About 19 million people 65 and older in the U.S. 鈥 a third of that age group 鈥 had some type of disability in 2021, the latest year for which data is available. This includes difficulty with hearing, vision, cognition, mobility, or activities such as bathing, dressing, or shopping.

Super agreed to talk to me, but her story was more complicated than I anticipated.

First, some context. Super, 59, has been open about her struggle with major depression, an issue she鈥檚 . In mid-June, after being fired from the Milken Institute, she began slipping into another depression 鈥 her fifth episode since 2005.

Super鈥檚 psychiatric medications weren鈥檛 working, she said, and she sought electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which had been effective for her in the past. But mental health services are difficult to get in a timely way, and Super couldn鈥檛 get an ECT appointment until Aug. 7.

On July 30, convinced that her life had no value, she attempted to end it. This was the event that led to her injury.

After two weeks in intensive care and a recovery unit, Super was ready to leave the hospital. But no rehabilitation facility would take her because of her mental health crisis. Without psychiatrists on staff, they claimed they couldn鈥檛 ensure her safety, said Len Nichols, her husband.

Nichols, 70, has held several high-level health policy positions during his career, among them senior adviser for health policy at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration and director of the Center for 国产精品视频 Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University. 

Using every contact he could, Nichols searched for a facility in New Orleans where Super could get intensive rehab services. During the pandemic, the couple had moved there from their longtime home in Arlington, Virginia. New Orleans is where Super grew up and three of her sisters live.

It took six days to get Super admitted to rehab. And that was just one of the challenges Nichols faced.

Over the next month, he prepared for Super鈥檚 return home, at considerable expense. An elevator was installed in the couple鈥檚 three-story home (their bedroom is on the second floor) for $38,000. A metal ramp at the home鈥檚 entry cost $4,000. A lift for their Jeep cost $6,500. A bathroom renovation came to $4,000. An electronic wheelchair-style device that can be used in the shower was another $4,000.

Super鈥檚 privately purchased insurance policy covered a wheelchair, bedside commode, hospital bed, and a Hoyer lift (a device that helps people transfer in and out of bed) with a small monthly copayment.

鈥淚t鈥檚 been surprising how much stuff I鈥檝e needed and how much all of it costs,鈥 Super admitted when we spoke on the phone.

鈥淓ven with all our education, resources, and connections, we have had a hard time making all the arrangements we鈥檝e needed to make,鈥 Nichols said. 鈥淚 cannot imagine how people do this with none of those three things.鈥

He showered praise on the physical and occupational therapists who worked with Super at the rehab facility and taught him essential skills, such as how to move her from bed to her wheelchair without straining his back or damaging her skin.

鈥淚 don鈥檛 think I ever appreciated how essential their work is before this,鈥 he told me. 鈥淭hey explain what you鈥檒l be able to do for yourself and then they help you do it. They show you a pathway back to dignity and independence.鈥

Still, the transition home has been difficult. 鈥淚n the hospital, nothing was expected of me, everything was done for me. In rehab, you鈥檙e very goal-oriented and there are still people to take care of you,鈥 Super told me. 鈥淭hen, you come home, and that structure is gone and things are harder than you thought.鈥

Fortunately, Nichols is healthy and able to handle hands-on caregiving. But he soon needed a break and the couple hired home-care workers for four hours a day, five days a week. That costs $120 daily, and Super鈥檚 long-term care insurance pays $100.

They鈥檙e lucky they can afford it. Medicare typically doesn鈥檛 pay for chronic help of this kind, and only about 7% of people 50 or older have long-term care insurance.

What does Super鈥檚 future look like? She isn鈥檛 sure. Physicians have said it could take a year to know whether she can recover function below her waist.

鈥淚鈥檓 happy to be alive and to see how I can take where I鈥檝e ended up and do something positive with it,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 still have a voice, and I can help people understand what it is to live with physical limitations in a way that I鈥檝e never really understood before.鈥

Hopefully, this sense of purpose will sustain her. But it won鈥檛 be easy. After we spoke, Super became discouraged with her prospects for recovery and her mood turned dark again, her husband said.

鈥淜nowing her, I believe that she will make it her mission to help others better understand the enormous and multiple challenges associated with the onset of a disability, and she will press for changes in our health system to improve the lives of families who have to deal with disabilities,鈥 said Stuart Butler, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has worked with Super in the past.

Persistent accessibility problems for people with disabilities are part of what Super wants to speak out about. 鈥淚 live in an old city with sidewalks that are very uneven, and just getting down the street in my chair is a big hassle,鈥 she said. 鈥淔inding parking where we can open the door fully and get me out is a challenge.鈥 

Nichols has been surprised by how many medical offices have no way of lifting Super from her wheelchair to the exam table. 鈥淭he default is, they ask me, 鈥楥an you pick her up?鈥 It鈥檚 stunning how poorly prepared they are to help someone like Nora.鈥

Then, there are reactions Super encounters when she leaves the house. 鈥淕oing down the street, people look at me and then they look away. It definitely feels different than when I was able-bodied. It makes me feel diminished,鈥 Super said.

Nichols finds himself thinking back to something a neurosurgeon said on the day Super was injured and had her first operation. 鈥淗e told me, 鈥楲ook, there鈥檚 more damage than we thought, and she won鈥檛 be what she was. You鈥檙e not going to know for six to 12 months what鈥檚 possible. But I can tell you to do as much as you can as soon as you can to move on to a new normal. Millions of people have done it, and you can too.鈥欌

We鈥檙e eager to hear from readers about questions you鈥檇 like answered, problems you鈥檝e been having with your care, and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit聽聽to submit your requests or tips.