Next year, the oldest baby boomers will turn 65, raising the question of how America will care for a burgeoning senior population unlike any the country has ever seen. The trend across the country is toward small, community-based residential care that involves little government regulation compared with that of traditional nursing homes. In theory, this is a great idea. But Seattle Times investigative reporter Michael Berens has spent more than a year and a half investigating abuses in such homes in Seattle, and has uncovered 236 unreported deaths linked to abuse or neglect in these adult family homes, as well as accounts of
elderly victims who were imprisoned in their rooms, roped into their beds at night, strapped to chairs during the day so they wouldn’t wander off, drugged into submission or left without proper medical treatment for weeks.
As a cheaper, more family-like alternative to nursing homes, Washington State licenses private home owners to rent out spare rooms and provide care for up to six elderly residents. But while nursing homes are federally regulated, these homes are under the state’s jurisdiction and are both less regulated and, because of their small, patchwork nature, harder to monitor. The program is riddled with abuse and neglect that often goes unreported, when reported to the proper authorities goes uninvestigated, and when investigated and found to be criminal, goes unmentioned to the police.
For residents of these homes, the rate of death from falling is four times higher than for residents of traditional nursing homes; from choking, the rate is 15 times higher. Twenty-nine deaths were linked to bedsores, which, if detected early, can be treated with ointments or powders.
Exploitation is a major problem as well — with rent from elderly residents ranging from $2,000 to $7,000 a month, Berens found dozens of these homes on the market back in January, residents included. One listing even advertised five seniors for $120,000, “sold separately” from the home.
Page Ulrey, the prosecutor in Seattle, compares elder abuse — and the social and legal response to it — to where we were with domestic abuse and sexual assault 30 years ago. “There is a tremendous amount of denial in this country that elder abuse exists and occurs,” Ulrey says.
I think many people, and I’m certainly guilty sometimes of this, too, don’t want to believe it’s as bad a problem as it is. And they don’t want to think of themselves as getting old. They don’t want to think of themselves as dying. They don’t want to think of their parents as ever being in a situation where they could be neglected or exploited. So we’ve kind of tended to box it away and not deal with it. The same way we tend to box away much of our elderly population in nursing homes and adult family homes.
While Berens story focuses on Washington State, where there are 2,984 adult family homes, approximately 50,000 such facilities exist in the U.S., housing almost a million people. Get the full story here. It’s a tough read, but an important one.