August 2013 WAJ President's Column

Assisted Living Facilities - Too Little Regulation

By Jeff Pitman, 2013 WAJ President

Today, there are over one million seniors and vulnerable adults living in assisted living facilities across the U.S. and that number is expected to increase every year as the "Baby Boomer" generation begins to retire.


On July 30th, FRONTLINE along with ProPublica, aired a special report on PBS titled "Life and Death in Assisted Living." The report discloses allegations of under-staffed and under-qualified assisted living facilities owned by the Emeritus Corporation, one of the largest for-profit assisted living corporations in the United States, with over 40,000 residents.


In the early 90's the idea of an assisted living facility was created as an alternative to a retirement community or a skilled nursing home.  This facility would allow an individual to be fairly independent, but still have the assistance of a trained facility staff to handle everyday tasks they could no longer do on their own.  It would provide an extra level of safety and peace of mind.


The show details the tragic story of famed 1940's Chicago Bears running back George McAfee, who was suffering from dementia. George's daughters placed their father in an assisted living facility called Cypress Court, which was sold to the Emeritus Corporation shortly after George arrived at the facility.


One night George wandered out of his room and down an unattended hallway. Emeritus records showed that no one was assigned to his wing for 30 minutes that night and staff had forgotten to lock away some industrial strength dish washing liquid. George found the bottle, picked it up and drank the contents.


The liquid burned his lips, throat, stomach and lungs. After suffering in the hospital for two days, the doctors could not save him and George died as a result of his injuries.


The state investigated George's death and found the assisted living facility was liable and the facility was fined a paltry $601. As one of George's daughters stated, "Had this been a daycare facility where a child died, the place would have been shut down."


Unfortunately, George's story is not uncommon. Several complaints have been filed over the years surrounding several Emeritus facilities, including more than two dozen questionable deaths. One that involved a resident that suffered from dementia wandering outside unnoticed and froze to death on Christmas day, and another resident that was beaten to death at the hands of another resident that was suffering from brain damage.


In another case featured on the show, a separate Emeritus facility in Auburn, California faced a $23 million dollar punitive damage award because it allowed an elderly woman to sit idle and unattended long enough to develop pressure ulcers and sores that eventually led to the woman's death three months after leaving the facility.


The Emeritus Corporation currently owns four assisted living facilities in Wisconsin.  According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the Emeritus facility located in Madison has had 6 citations in the past year, which include citations for lack of documentation and notification to the state after a resident was injured and was hospitalized and another one for unreported injuries a resident received after a fall, which allegedly played a part in the resident's death. Click here to read the citations.


The FRONTLINE report demonstrated how the lack of regulations and accountability of assisted living facilities is causing needless suffering for many residents, and how the only thing holding Emeritus and other assisted living facilities accountable is the civil justice system.


In the interview with FRONTLINE, Patricia McGinnis with CA Advocates for Nursing Home Reform stated "Today one of the few remedies that consumers have with regard to assisted living facilities are lawsuits."


When corporations place profits over resident safety and our government fails to protect the lives of our elderly and frail citizens, the civil justice system and juries are the only legal recourse many families have to make sure their loved ones are protected and get the justice they deserve.   Who else will speak for the victims and hold corporations accountable?  The jury system is the great equalizer.  Citizens in their communities can enforce the community standards.


You can help.  Contact your state representatives today and ask them to help protect the ones you care for the most. Ask them to consider tougher regulations and training guidelines for assisted living facilities and their staff.  If you have a loved one in an assisted living facility, make sure you monitor what's going on and don't be afraid to speak up. 


To view the FRONTLINE special report titled "Life and Death in Assisted Living," click here.  Also let us know what you think by following us on Facebook and leaving your comments regarding the show.


To learn more about Wisconsin's assisted living and nursing home regulations and staff requirements, please visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website at:


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