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Documentary Shines Light on Shady Assisted Living Industry

Photo: Courtesy Photo, License: N/A

Courtesy Photo

George McAfee’s daughter holds a photo of her father, who died after swallowing toxic dishwashing liquid at an Emeritus facility in Georgia


Moving Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa into assisted living is already an agonizing choice. Wondering whether these unregulated facilities are in actuality neglectful hellholes that could end up killing them is even more excruciating. Yet that’s what a recent Frontline/ProPublica documentary forces us to confront. Life and Death in Assisted Living, which first aired on TV over the summer and will have an encore on PBS September 24 and DVD release on October 1, investigates one of the top assisted living providers in the country and finds it dreadfully lacking.

Take note that in theory an assisted living facility is quite different from a nursing home (called skilled nursing facilities in the industry). While nursing homes provide actual medical care (hence the “nursing”) on a continual basis and are subject to nearly 20 separate federal regulations as well as covered under state regulations for health facilities, assisted living companies are under much less scrutiny. For instance, in Texas, the health and safety code devotes 64 pages to convalescent and nursing homes. Assisted living code regulations are covered in 18 pages. Ostensibly, this is because the populations served are quite different: nursing home folks need constant access to healthcare and monitoring; assisted living residents just need more care and attention than they’re able to receive on their own or with family.

As Life and Death quickly points out, even the basic level of care isn’t afforded to some residents of Emeritus’ massive national chain of assisted living facilities. Emeritus, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is so large that it has seven assisted living facilities in San Antonio alone. It’s also pretty pricey, families interviewed in the documentary quoted monthly rents of between $3,000-$5,5000 for their relatives staying in various Emeritus homes. Yet all that dough must go back to Emeritus’ revenue stream, which totaled $1.6 billion last year, because according to several families and former employees interviewed for this film, it’s not going to the residents.

Reporter A.C. Thompson walks viewers through interview after interview with mournful family members whose loved ones were seriously neglected while in Emeritus’ facilities across the country. Multiple sources reported that after only a few days of living in these seemingly lovely homes, their father or mother (usually) appeared soiled and unwashed, drugged, or had suffered a fall. All of these interviewees’ relatives died either while at Emeritus or shortly after leaving, and the documentary makes the case that each death resulted from improper care and lax standards at Emeritus. Examples include a woman in Austin who froze to death on Christmas Day. Another woman developed what the courts ruled were fatal bedsores in just 19 days. A man wandering through an unsupervised wing poisoned himself by drinking caustic dish washing liquid.

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