“Life and Death in Assisted Living”: A Frontline/ProPublica investigation

downloadDealing with the housing and care issues that come with aging and disability is, at best, discouraging. When assisted living came along, those who could afford a spot found a comfortable, dignified place to age. These homes look more like hotels than hospitals and offer care for those who need help, but don’t need a nursing home.

But, long-term care is a challenge for both residents and owners. And when the owner is an off-site corporation, efforts to contain costs can lead to poor care for residents.

That’s what the  investigative reporters at Frontline and ProPublica found when they started digging. The FRONTLINE series — starts tonight, Tuesday, and the ProPublica series is running this week on the group’s website. Here’s what they found:

imagesWith America’s population of seniors growing faster and living longer than ever before, more and more families are turning to assisted living facilities to help their loved ones age in comfort and safety.

But are some in the loosely regulated, multibillion-dollar assisted living industry putting the lives of those loved ones at risk?

From the Texas assisted living resident who froze to death on Christmas morning to the Hall of Fame football player who drank unsecured toxic dishwashing liquid and died 11 days later, this major investigation raises questions about fatal lapses in care and a quest for profits at one of America’s best known assisted living companies.

Here in Massachusetts, assisted living facilities have to be certified by the state Office of Elder Affairs. State law requires the homes to have:

  • One or two bedroom units with entry doors that lock
  • Private bathrooms for each unit in newly constructed ALRs
  • Private kitchenettes or access to cooking facilities
  • At least one meal a day
  • For all residents who need it, assistance with bathing, dressing, ambulation and supervision of or reminders to take prescribed medications.
  • 24 hour a day on-site staff
  • Emergency response systems to signal on-site staff
  • Individualized service plans
  • Residency agreements (lease/contract) which detail what the home will provide to the resident, including the rights and responsibilities of both the home and the resident.

The home staff members are not allowed to deliver medical care and the homes are barred from accepting residents who need “skilled nursing care” unless that care is provided by an “employee of a Certified Provider of Ancillary Health Services.  Those caregivers can include physician, pharmacist, restorative therapist, podiatrist  hospice and home health aides.

In other words, assisted living is housing, not health care. This series did not look at homes here. But a former aide at a Massachusetts assisted living program makes some serious charges in the comment section of the ProPublica story.

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