AUSTIN — A brash New Yorker may not be everyone's idea of Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year, but I can't think of a better man to carry the title for 2012 than nursing home rights advocate Sam Perlin.
The Brooklyn native is one of the best friends anyone living in a Texas nursing home never knew they had.
Perlin, 93, lives in Houston. But for decades now he's dedicated his life to being a government watchdog over state officials in Austin overseeing the long-term-care industry. Perlin dedicates himself to this thankless task because he knows someone needs to do it. That's a lesson he learned serving his nation while in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, fighting the Japanese.
During the battle for Clark Field in the Philippines, he recalled, "a guy opened a can of supposed beans. It was full of sand. If it was a product error it would have been empty, so it was deliberate. People make a lot of money supplying war stuff."
People make a lot of money from working in the long-term-care industry, too. Perlin's volunteer efforts as a private citizen help make sure someone is there to keep an eye on how the industry works with the state, cutting waste and working to ensure Texas gets its money's worth from every penny spent on long-term care.
Perlin wasn't always such a powerful advocate. When his mother died in a nursing home in the 1970s, he was devastated by the quality of care she received. Like most anyone else who's ever face the decision to put a loved one into care, the former middle manager for a New York steel company just didn't know what to do. Later, after he began volunteering in nursing homes, Perlin's outrage grew into action as he took on more responsibilities as an ombudsman and then as a member of a citizens group, Nursing Home Hotline Patrol. As a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, he was instrumental in starting the first nursing assistant certification program.
Perlin moved to Houston in 1983, signed up with Texans for Improvement of Nursing Homes and has been working for Texans ever since.
In 2007, he earned a Special Life-Time Advocacy Award from the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. In accepting the award, Perlin brushed off the praise.
"It doesn't make sense for me to get an award for something I should be given a penalty for not doing," Perlin said. "As a member of society, I have a responsibility to contribute to its welfare."
Perlin's right, of course. As members of society, we all have a responsibility to contribute our time and efforts and skills to fix the problems we see. From his combat service in World War II to a successful career in the steel industry to his decades serving others as an advocate, Perlin has more than lived up to his responsibilities.
But Perlin's not ready to rest yet. He's all set to take on the state bureaucracy once again, he tells me, to bring more oversight to the program that oversees mental retardation agency service providers. "I am working with the Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of Aged/Disabled. They are staffed with dedicated people who welcome input," Perlin said.
I have no doubts he will succeed, and we will all benefit from his efforts. As a statewide elected official in charge of running eight Texas State Veterans Homes, I welcome Perlin's dedication, commitment and yes, even scrutiny. In the end, this crusty crusader and I are on the same team.