In Chesco, elderly residents struggle through the storm

Ronald Konder, 79, brought enough diabetes medicine to a shelter at West Chester University to last a week, but food was out of his control. "I've got to be taking the medication correctly with the food," he said. "It's complicated."
Ronald Konder, 79, brought enough diabetes medicine to a shelter at West Chester University to last a week, but food was out of his control. "I've got to be taking the medication correctly with the food," he said. "It's complicated." (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 08, 2014

One was an 84-year-old woman enduring her first crisis as a widow. Another was a 79-year-old diabetic whose feet had begun to ache. A third was a 94-year-old man who lives by himself.

The three did not know each other. But on Wednesday night they found themselves at the same shelter in Exton, sitting at different tables in a drafty cafeteria, wondering when they could go home.

When the trees fall, the wires snap, and the lights go out, everyone's life is disrupted. But the elderly who live alone become particularly vulnerable. In Chester County, where the impact from the ice storm was most severe, one in almost seven residents is over 65.

For many, normal driving is a challenge. Medical concerns bring daily stress. Routines are a comfort and a necessity.

These three were among more than a dozen seniors at the shelter Wednesday night, traveling different paths but sharing many concerns.

In the early hours of the outage, they took the challenge minute by minute, planning little but hoping for the best. "I'm not worried," Terri Hatcher said, "because I don't think it will last long."

A broken routine

Robert Montgomery, 94, has lived in the same West Chester home for 60 years. His eyesight is failing. Familiarity guides him through his days.

On Wednesday, Montgomery woke up in a house without heat or power to run his microwave. Unable to cook a frozen breakfast, he settled on a ham and cheese sandwich his daughter had made the day before.

He went without his morning coffee.

His daughter, Roberta Davis, was nearby, but her house had not only no heat, but no water. She arranged for him to come to the Red Cross shelter at Lionville Middle School.

There, he abandoned the walker he often uses at home and settled for a wheelchair. A sheriff's deputy brought him a plate of food. Volunteers stepped in to push him to and from the bathroom when they saw him shuffling on his own.

With his routine broken, confusion settled in.

Montgomery could not recall the name of the bus company that brought him there. He said his daughter was out of town on vacation. She wasn't.

In his long life, he said, Wednesday was the first night he had spent in a shelter. But he didn't mind.

"They gave me a cot to sleep on tonight, which is nice," he said. "I didn't expect that."

By Thursday, the Red Cross had moved the guests to a larger shelter in West Chester. When Montgomery got off the bus, holding the railing of the handicap platform as the driver lowered it to the ground, Davis was waiting for him.

She had wanted him to stay at a hospital the night before, but said he wasn't accepted because he did not have a serious medical problem. He's not on dialysis. He doesn't use an oxygen tank.

"He gets around at the house OK because he knows the house," she said. "You take him out of that environment, it's totally confusing."

At the shelter, Davis was worried that her father was getting too little attention, that no one was available to check on him regularly and help him get to and from the bathroom.

As the staff tried to come up with a solution, Montgomery's things had already been placed beside one of the 400 cots, where he planned to spend the night.

Meals and medications

In a thin date book, before the calendar pages and small maps of the continents, Ronald Konder had written down the phone number for the medical aide who comes regularly to his Malvern home.

Wednesday night, sitting beside his rolling suitcase in the school's cafeteria, the 79-year-old Konder thumbed through the gold-edged pages and worried about where he could charge his phone.

"I'm a little upset now," he said, running his hand over his white hair, which was all static and angles from his wool hat. "I don't know what's happening, what the food is going to be like."

Konder, a retired mechanic who said he once repaired Air Force aircraft, fretted about the food in his freezer, the meals his doctor said would help control his diabetes along with his medications.

He brought enough medicine along to last a week, but the food was out of his control.

"I've got to be taking the medication correctly with the food," he said. "It's complicated."

After the dinner line had died down, Konder made a plate for himself and sat alone. He pulled out a copy of a biography of President John Quincy Adams, but did not open the book.

His feet, he said, should be elevated.

The next morning, Konder said he had slept soundly. But he still had not charged his phone.

He passed the night by reading a few pages of the book, then flipping to the parts about Adams' later years, when he was swimming in the Potomac River every day at age 70.

"Make a comparison between my life and his," he said, letting out a gruff laugh.

As everyone was being moved Thursday to the West Chester shelter, Konder was hopeful he might finally reach his medical aide.

"I should have given him my key so he could get the freezer contents out before it rots," he said. "I don't think it's going to be cold enough to keep it good."

Eyeing the ice overhead

When Hatcher heard the thud at 5 a.m. Wednesday, she thought someone was breaking into her house.

It was only a branch grazing her kitchen window, ripping the screen but missing the glass by an inch. But the discovery didn't settle her.

For the rest of the morning - as the heat escaped from her West Chester townhouse - the 83-year-old woman gazed at the glistening trees in her backyard and at the branches over the skylights.

They scared her, she said.

Hatcher has lived alone since May, when her husband, Terry, died. The 10 months since have been busy. She wrote 81 thank-you letters before more cards addressed to "Mr. and Mrs." showed up around the holidays.

He was so good at keeping old friends, she said.

"He was my World War II hero. He was a wonderful, wonderful man to everybody," Hatcher said Wednesday night while picking at a granola bar in the shelter cafeteria.

The trip there - as ice fell on the roof of the shuttle bus and the driver made U-turns in front of downed trees - had stolen her appetite.

Her son had offered to bring her to his house in Montgomery County, she said, but he didn't have power either, so she settled on the shelter instead, not wanting to stay with those heavy trees overhead.

She brought a reusable shopping bag stuffed with her medications - she has diabetes - and a cache of personal documents.

She did not bring a change of clothes; she didn't expect to be there long.

The cafeteria began to empty around 8:30 p.m., as families with young children headed to their cots. Hatcher wasn't tired, and even when she was, she found it difficult to doze off in a room with so many people.

She and another woman who also couldn't sleep walked back and forth down a long hallway instead.

Around 4:30 a.m. she called the security desk at her gated community, Hershey's Mill, and heard power had been restored.

Before many of the others at the shelter were awake, she was on the bus headed home.

"I walked into a beautiful warm house. And boy, did I go to bed," she said.

She woke up five hours later to four messages on her phone. She hadn't even heard it ring.


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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