Families feel powerless against elder abuse• TCPalm
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
Anger, frustration and despair. Those are some of the emotions often felt by family members with loved ones in Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
I heard many horror stories from readers after my Tuesday column about institutions that cater to the elderly.
I heard from a certified nursing assistant, Mary Christov from Stuart, who’s worked in facilities in Martin and Palm Beach counties for 20 years.
“I tell people,” Christov said, “if you can keep your loved ones at home, do it. Don’t leave them in a nursing home.”
Christov laid much of the blame at the feet of operators who routinely overload staff with too many patients as a way to trim operating costs.
There are plenty of stories about almost unimaginable resident neglect and abuse.
Brian Lee, former head of the state Ombudsman program, told me about an indigent man in a Tampa nursing home who had facial cancer. The man was shifted from room to room so state inspectors wouldn’t see his condition was not being treated. Eventually, an Ombudswoman smelled the infection from behind a closed door and decided to investigate, Lee said.
What’s doubly tragic about situations like this is that Florida’s Ombudsman program — the only program that consistently advocates for patients’ rights — has lost nearly half of its volunteers in the past two years since interference from the governor and nursing home lobbyists. Oversight requirements have plummeted while corporate profits have soared.
Even state-mandated inspections by the ACHA have been reduced to only one every two years.
That’s simply not enough to adequately police what goes on at even the best facilities, Lee said.
Evelyn Rader of Stuart told me about her late mother, Rose Plaia, a resident at two relatively expensive Port St. Lucie assisted-living facilities.
Rader recorded several episodes of unresponsive care in a journal she kept over nine months.
In the first home, her 90-year-old mother had to drag herself to a nurses station after vascular surgery to get any staff attention. Rader said she got the impression that management was far more concerned about being slapped with a lawsuit if her mother had hurt herself rather than worrying about offering adequate, compassionate care.
It wasn’t any better at a second nursing home where Plaia was admitted after bowel surgery.
She’d wanted to go there to be with her dying husband, but red tape held up the transfer for almost six months. Shortly after she was transferred, her husband died and she was diagnosed with colon cancer. A dispute erupted between Hospice case managers and the home’s nursing staff about appropriate levels of pain medication.
Eventually, Rader was able to move her mother to a Stuart facility where she received compassionate care until she died a month or so later. Eleven days before that occurred, Rader wrote to Gov.Charlie Crist complaining about what staff at their second Port St. Lucie home said was a state regulation that her dying mother had to be hoisted out of bed in a canvas sling and weighed regularly.
A month after her mother’s death, Rader finally received a phone call from ACHA, confirming that as her mother’s medical surrogate she had the right to refuse any treatment on her behalf.
“People feel frustrated,” Lee said. “No one at the ACHA listens or responds to complaints. Now the Ombudsman office doesn’t respond either. People are hurt, angry and they want help.”
Patients and their families are often fearful of being labeled “bad apples” and complainers. Residents have no protection from involuntary discharge from an assisted-living facility, where operators can evict a patient with only 45 days’ notice if they are “troublemakers.” Families have no recourse.
The state is convening new eldercare rule-making workshops in June, but real, useful changes seem unlikely.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Lee said.
In the absence of an annual state-ordered inspection system that truly ferrets out the problems in eldercare, public pressure is the only way things will improve.
If you have loved ones in such facilities and are concerned about the lack of oversight or poor conditions, pester your legislators with your concerns. And even if you do not have anyone in your family in such a home, consider this:
Baby Boomers are retiring in record numbers, and many will need to live in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. You may need some protection yourself in the not-too-distant future.
Anthony Westbury is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at 772-409-1320 firstname.lastname@example.org.