As we learned in last month’s #ElderCareChat discussion on assisted living, this still evolving care category is clouded by confusion and misinformation among consumers and the general public. A recent FRONTLINE special on PBS, titled “Life and Death in Assisted Living,” didn’t help matters.
The sub headline of “Is this loosely regulated, multi-billion dollar industry putting seniors at risk?” indicates the negative tone of the news program, which put the nation’s largest assisted living provider, Emeritus Senior Living, in the hot seat. At an Emeritus community in Georgia, George McAfee, who suffered from dementia, died after drinking a toxic cleaning product that had not been appropriately stored or secured — and in a wing of the building that records showed had been completely unstaffed during the time that he was there.
As they shared in the program, McAfee’s daughters had noticed a major decline in the quality of their father’s care after Emeritus, a for-profit provider, bought the small private community where he had lived. (Before the buy out, McAfee’s family had been very happy with the care and services provided.)
This is such a complicated and multifaceted issue, from the ethics of for-profit providers to the lack of — or imbalanced — regulatory oversight at the state and industry level, to appropriate hiring procedures, pay, and training of staff, to the very blurred lines of what constitutes skilled nursing home care and assisted living care, to what kind of dementia care practices are best. We could write multiple blog posts on each one of these topics and probably many more.
Here’s my take, in a nutshell:
I worked in assisted living for almost 10 years. In that time, I served in a few different communities and saw it all — the good, the bad, the ugly. I worked for non-profit and for-profit providers; neither business model was perfect. Non-profit providers could still make money, so I don’t believe all the blame should fall on the for-profit industry alone. After working in assisted living, I did advocacy work for the Alzheimer’s Association, and one of my primary responsibilities was to advise the state as they composed new assisted living regulations. More/stringent regulations do not make the industry better, nor do they make residents safer.
Like I said before, it’s a complicated subject on so many levels.
George McAfee’s death was most certainly a tragic, awful one. There is no other way to look at it. However, I don’t think it should cast a shadow on the entire assisted living industry, or that everyone who currently lives in (or is considering) assisted living should be fearful or run in the other direction. Accidents happen, and sometimes fatal ones, and thinking of the “what ifs” often leads nowhere.
What I do think we can learn from his death (and unfortunately, others like it that have also occurred over the years) is a call to action for family members or friends to be very involved in their loved one’s care for the entire duration of their assisted living stay — no matter how well-staffed the community seems to be, no matter how much the monthly cost is, no matter how stringent the state regulations. Hold the provider accountable always, but support the care team in their efforts too. And when choosing an assisted living community, know all the facts before move-in day. Read our posts on how to choose wisely here.
Many industry experts and insiders spoke out too:
- Read what Larry Minnix, President of LeadingAge (an organization that offers advocacy, research and education for senior living providers), had to say about the program in Making My Blood Boil: Frontline Exposé on Assisted Living.
- Get the point of view of John Gonzales, Owner/Principal of SDG Senior Living, Inc., in Dangerous Bridges: A Commentary on the PBS Expose of Emeritus and Assisted Living.
- Also, check out Senior Housing Forum blogger Steve Moran’s take in PBS Frontline Does a Hatchet Job on Assisted Living: Is assisted living really the rock we don’t want to look under?