Bob Cervenka's father died when he was 10 and his mother struggled to keep them afloat, so when Bob started a plastic injection molding company in his hometown of Phillips, Wis., it was a true American success story.
"It had a big impact on Bob," said his wife, Debbie. "He came from humble beginnings, so he worked really hard to get ahead."
It paid off. The company grew exponentially, with annual sales of more than $280 million and 1,600 employees. In 2010, Cervenka sold the company, and he and Debbie began a new life together.
Then it happened.
One day as he was walking up the steps near his home Bob fell backward and hit his head, and the couple's future changed abruptly. Bob suffered a massive head injury so severe that doctors said he would need to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home.
Debbie didn't like the idea, so she started looking around for options. A couple of years before Bob's accident, she had joined the board of trustees at Ecumen, which provides housing and assisted living for seniors, so Ecumen was an obvious first choice. She and the staff came up with a plan that would allow Bob to live independently in a Duluth apartment in Ecumen's Lakeshore location, with a care team that is with him 24 hours a day. The Cervenkas' pay for the care out of their own pockets.
As a board member at Ecumen, Debbie soon came to realize not many people can afford quality care when they age or get ill.
"It's the problem that thousands of boomers are going to face and one that Minnesota or this country has no plan for," said Eric Schubert, vice president of strategic initiatives for Ecumen. "Most people think their Medicare will pay for such services, but they don't. Thousands of Minnesotans become impoverished, move to Medicaid, and move to a nursing home."
Last year Ecumen provided more than $8 million in charity care to cover people who had run out of money — an unsustainable amount even for an organization that finished in the black last year.
Debbie was startled by the lack of a system to care for people who become disabled and need constant care, so this week she donated $5 million to Ecumen's newly created Benevolence Fund to help people remain in their homes after they have had to spend down all their assets. Debbie is encouraging others to donate to the cause of elderly care.
"Even though Bob couldn't stay at home, we created a home for him, filled with all the things he likes," said Debbie. "We were very successful, but not everybody is so lucky."
Debbie discovered that hardworking people who have toiled to support themselves and stay out of poverty end up broke due to the high cost of medical care.
"It's so frustrating that we have a country so successful, so creative and so entrepreneurial, yet care for the elderly is a secondary concern," Debbie said. "So many people don't have a family to support them or the resources to get good care."
Schubert is passionate about aging issues and the lack of preparation across the country as a wave of boomers ages and gets sick. Speaking to community groups, he's predicted — and already seen — shortages in services for the elderly and people with disabilities.
"Minnesota is on a horrible collision course," said Schubert. "Unprecedented numbers of baby boomers experiencing record longevity means unprecedented supportive service needs. Who will pay for them? If you say government, that means we'll have thousands of Minnesotans impoverishing themselves to qualify for the government safety net. If you say private insurance, I say good luck, because most Minnesotans don't buy it or can't afford it. We have to innovate in how we pay for services and how they're delivered, especially if Minnesota wants roads, bridges, classrooms and other elements of a great place to live."
The Cervenkas have long been philanthropists both individually and through the plastics company. They usually don't allow their names to be used when donating money.
"The reason I agreed to be named is I'm hoping to create awareness around aging," said Debbie. "Younger people need to think about how much money they are going to need, and we need to find some solutions to problems we are going to see. It's scary."
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