HOW Prane Paciunas must have suffered in the last months of her life.

Not just from the pain of deep, maggot-infested bedsores. Not just from the agony of starvation. But from the absolute betrayal of Jean Marie Dombrowski, 48, the woman she'd trusted to care for her.

The more I learn about the simple, gracious and dignified life of Paciunas, 89, the more her death breaks my heart. At least she did not succumb in squalor, ignored by the human animals who walked around her as she rotted on a filthy mattress on her living-room floor. At least she succumbed in a warm, clean bed in the ICU of Aria Health's Frankford hospital, tended by staff who cared.

I hope some part of her was aware enough to know that she'd been rescued, even if she could not be saved. I hope that gave her peace.

I spent yesterday with neighbors and friends of Paciunas' - who called her "Pranny." For more than six decades (no one was sure exactly how long), she lived at the same corner in Frankford.

Some didn't want to be identified, fearing reprisal from the shady-looking characters whom Dombrowski had brought into Paciunas' life in the last two years. But folks at St. George's Roman Catholic Church on Venango Street - where she was known as "Franny" - were happy to speak on the record.

"She was an affable, delightful woman, a devoted church member and an excellent seamstress - she repaired the altar cloths for us," says Monsignor Joe Anderlonis, the church pastor. "Her house was impeccable. I was there for dinner a few times and there was a sort of old-world, European feel" to its decor.

A Lithuanian immigrant widowed in her 40s, she was childless and had no family. The older ladies at St. George's made up her social circle until, one by one, they died off. When her own health kept her from attending Mass, the church's Eucharistic ministers brought Holy Communion to her every other Sunday.

By then, Dombrowski was Paciunas' caregiver. At first, the arrangement seemed to work well, says Stephany Gutauskas, the Eucharistic minister. Dombrowski would run errands for Paciunas, take her to the doctor, help her with housework.

But then Dombrowksi did a weird thing.

"She had Franny's phone disconnected," says Gutauskas. "I said to Franny, 'If you fall, how will you call for help?' " recalls Gutauskas. "She said, 'I have Jeanie.' It didn't make sense to me."

Gutauskas says that once Dombrowski got power of attorney over Paciunas' affairs, she moved Paciunas into her own decrepit home and moved her own daughter - who has a passel of kids - into Paciunas' nicer one. And Paciunas began to lose weight.

Then Dombrowski moved with Paciunas back into Paciunas' home - but other people moved in, too.

"People were going in and out of that house all night," says a neighbor. "Something was just weird."

Eventually, Dombrowski didn't let Gutauskas or other church members see Paciunas. On Nov. 2, says Gutauskas, she went to the 15th Police District to ask them to check on Paciunas but was told to call 9-1-1, which she did not do. She thought it would be fruitless without a court order.

(A police spokesman couldn't be reached for comment on this.)

While she and Monsignor Anderlonis were trying to figure out a next step, an anonymous tip to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging resulted in the police visit Nov. 7, which led to Paciunas' hospitalization and Dombrowski's arrest.

"I wonder now if there was more we could've done," says Anderlonis. "But we never, ever thought something like this was going on. Franny was a very private and proud woman. On one of my visits to her, I asked her - in Lithuanian - if she thought she was getting adequate care. She answered in English that she was OK. When Jeanie heard her, she said, 'I have power of attorney and she's fine.' "

We now know that she was in trouble. That her home, once her haven, had become her fetid prison. That Dombrowski, her caregiver, was her alleged tormentor.

What terrifies me is that we know there are other Prane Paciunases out there.

These frail souls need people who are capable, willing and honorable enough to care for them as they decline, and their desperation attracts predators like nectar attracts bees. Behind closed doors they are abused and neglected by "caregivers" who use them for their pitiful pension or Social Security checks.

Paciunas was abused in her own home, just steps from a bustling corner store, around the corner from a busy city rec center and less than a mile from a hospital that could not save her because she was too far gone.

Anyone in those establishments would've rushed to her rescue, had they known of her peril.

If only their tormentors weren't so good at hiding them.

Phone: 215-854-2217

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