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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

People vulnerable to developing bedsores, freezing to death and drinking toxic chemicals don’t sound like relatively hale folks enjoying their semiautonomous golden years. Indeed, Thompson and co. state that two-thirds of assisted living residents have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Therein lies the problem, according to many ex-employees who spoke to Thompson.

According to both salespeople and facility managers, Emeritus demanded that occupancy at its facilities be kept at 100 percent. But as one talking head notes in the film, most healthy elderly people don’t need assisted living. According to Life and Death, Emeritus solved the demand problem by going after a new customer base: those in need of its Memory Care service.

Catherine Hawes, an expert in aging and long-term care at Texas A&M, explains the strategy to Thompson thusly: “A) there’s demand, and you’re trying to keep occupancy up; and B) you get to charge more for Memory Care. I mean, all you’ve really done is created rooms around a courtyard.” As Hawes alludes to, Emeritus’ Memory Care basically consists of supposedly more-secure residence wings (although at least two deaths detract from that claim) and one eight-hour class for employees, many of whom are paid $10 an hour. Most disturbing is the alleged “backdoor policy” ex-employees say they were told to follow. “Keep the backdoor closed” in this case didn’t mean a basic safety measure, but an effort not to have residents move out, even to skilled nursing facilities if their health took a turn for the worse. This callous pursuit of profit is coming at the expense of increasingly confused, sick and vulnerable elderly whose families shell out upwards of $36,000 for their care.

Despite the deaths—and a hefty $23 million judgment in a suit that found Emeritus guilty of malice, oppression and fraud—Life and Death portrays the company as laughing all the way to the bank, with little fear of regulation. Reporters at ProPublica, however, are determined to be Emeritus’ killjoy. The unsettling documentary is just the tip of the iceberg; the non-profit journalism site continues to collect stories from assisted living employees and residents’ family members. If you’re considering assisted living as an option for a loved one, make sure to check out their helpful list of questions to ask when searching for facilities. They can’t all be this bad.

Life and Death in Assisted Living

9pm Tues, Sept 24 on KLRN
DVD out on Oct 1

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