Opinion: Time to act on protecting seniors

Gail Walker with a photo of her mother Lucile McMichael Brown. Her mother was a resident of an assisted living home in Macon. She was 92 when she died in 2015. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)
Gail Walker with a photo of her mother Lucile McMichael Brown. Her mother was a resident of an assisted living home in Macon. She was 92 when she died in 2015. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Lucile M. Brown lived the kind of life we all hope for.

She loved her family and had achieved that ultimate maternal title: great-grandmother.

She was a revered teacher who so enjoyed that work that she served as a substitute when she was in her 80s. She’d been a favorite of her students; they recalled her lessons even decades after they’d left her classroom.

She’d certainly earned a fulfilling final chapter to her life, it seemed.

The time had come to move her to a place where she could live out her years in comfort and safety. That place was the John-Wesley Villas care facility in Macon.

Her daughter Gail Walker wanted to make sure Lucile was well-cared for. That’s why she paid thousands of dollars each month to the assisted living community. She also hired a private caregiver to spend the days with her mother.

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And Gail drove from Atlanta to Macon every week to visit.

But one night, 92-year-old Lucile wandered from the home, the confusion of her dementia apparently leading her out a door near her room.

No one noticed, even though an open door should have triggered an alarm.

Around 4 a.m., someone saw she wasn’t in her room.

Finally, she was found nearby at the bottom of a steep hill, in her pink-and-white nightgown, dead of a broken neck.

Later, after the state investigated, an executive from the facility called Gail to let her know that the state didn’t hold the John-Wesley Villas responsible.

As tragic as Lucile’s story is, unless Georgia makes changes to how it oversees senior care in such facilities, we can expect more tragedies.

Thousands of Georgia families rely on assisted living communities and personal care homes; that reliance will grow as baby boomers age.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spent more than a year examining the quality of care in these facilities. Our work reveals dangerous gaps that leave our senior citizens vulnerable and unprotected.

Here are some of the biggest concerns that should be addressed:

  • Fines: Even the worst violations, including cases with death or harm, rarely result in significant fines, if fines are issued at all. In more than half of the death cases, the state imposed a penalty of $601.
  • State inspectors: The Department of Community Health (DCH) doesn't have enough inspectors to effectively do its job. More than a year can pass between routine inspections, and the agency can be slow to respond to complaints and fail to thoroughly investigate them.
  • Caregiver staffing: Some of the most harmful problems at facilities stem from staffing shortages and poor training. Staffing ratios mandated by the state are too often inadequate, particularly if facilities have a significant number of frail residents or those with dementia.
  • Transparency: The state revamped its regulatory website last week to make it less cumbersome and easier to navigate. But the state needs to take additional steps to ensure reports are posted in a timely manner, and present clear findings. Too often, regulatory reports can take months to appear, and they can be difficult to understand. And if the state doesn't substantiate a complaint, there's no information provided to the public about an allegation. Other states provide more robust information about facilities.
  • Reporting gaps: Allegations of abuse and neglect in assisted living facilities and large personal care homes routinely fail to get reported to police and prosecutors. Also, facilities regularly fail to report serious allegations involving harm or injuries to state regulators.

With the Georgia Legislature about to open its session, our state lawmakers have the opportunity to step in. We should all demand reform. Surrounding states, including Alabama, Florida and North Carolina do a much better job of protecting their seniors and providing information to families who face these decisions.

The issue has Gov. Brian Kemp's attention.

“Our state values life at all stages, and every Georgian should be able to age gracefully and with dignity in their local communities,” Kemp said in a written statement. “These findings have brought to light serious issues involving care for aging adults.”

» SEARCHABLE DATABASE: Details on every facility studied by the AJC

» MORE: The 'Unprotected' investigative series

Most state officials have spoken up in support for reforms. And the AJC will certainly be covering their actions closely.

And there’s a reason for you to watch this closely, as we’ve reported in an earlier story:

“The question is how far Georgia will be willing to go. Some lawmakers don’t like the idea of big fines or new requirements. They say that could up the price tag for consumers and shut out some seniors who want to get assistance with daily activities and medications in a residential setting, not a nursing home. Advocates had to fight for years to get Georgia to even allow assisted living communities, which offer a care level between personal care homes and skilled nursing facilities.”

Georgia’s leaders must take on this challenge. Our vulnerable seniors deserve to be protected.

Leaders to contact to express your views

Gov. Brian Kemp

206 Washington Street

Suite 203, State Capitol

Atlanta, GA 30334

Phone: (404) 656-1776

E-mail: https://gov.georgia.gov/contact-us/constituent-services

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

206 Washington Street

Suite 240, State Capitol

Atlanta, GA 30334

Phone: (404) 656-5030

E-mail at: https://ltgov.georgia.gov/constituent-services

House Speaker David Ralston

332 CAP State Capitol

Atlanta, GA 30334

Phone: 404.656.5020

Email: david.ralston@house.ga.gov

Rep. Sharon Cooper

Chairwoman of House Health and Human Services Committee

436 State Capitol

Atlanta, GA 30334

Phone: (404) 656-5069

E-mail: sharon.cooper@house.ga.gov

Sen. Ben Watson

Chairman of Senate Health and Human Services Committee

320-B Coverdell Legislative Office Building

Atlanta, GA 30334

Office: (404) 656-7880

Email: ben.watson@senate.ga.gov

Rep. Jesse Petrea

Chairman of House Human Relations and Aging Committee

408-A Coverdell Legislative Office Building

Atlanta, GA 30334

Phone: (404) 657-1803

E-mail: jesse.petrea@house.ga.gov