Opinion: Finding the reality behind the glitz

Investigative reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent more than a year digging into records of every assisted living community and large personal care homes in Georgia. The newspaper exposes how too many facilities do not provide safe, quality care for senior citizens and how their families had no way to know what’s really going on. Essential in-depth local journalism that only the AJC can do. Read their investigation and search their exclusive database at AJC.com/unprotected.

It’s a decision faced by more and more of us: what to do about an aging parent or grandparent when they are no longer able to live independently.

And in this time of easy access to information, it’s tempting to believe that a simple Google search can lead you to the best option – say, a senior care home.

And Georgia has more than 400 of them that provide care for 25 or more people.

Many of these are high-end, private-pay facilities that seem to fit the need perfectly. Restaurant-style menus. Beautiful lobbies. Dining rooms with tablecloths. Private suites.

Senior care homes offer all this, and they fill the gap between living independently and living in a skilled nursing home, where 24-hour medical care is required. The price tag can be up to $10,000 per month.

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

» MORE: The 'Unprotected' investigative series

Your Google search would inevitably lead to reassuring descriptions of these facilities, perhaps even of one nearby so you could easily visit mom or dad.

Their online marketing materials describe a comforting and caring staff. All the buzz words will be there: compassionate, dedicated and highly-skilled.

The AJC has looked closely into the booming senior care industry by examining thousands of documents, records from state agencies, police departments, and court filings over the last four years. (Hyosub Shin / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
The AJC has looked closely into the booming senior care industry by examining thousands of documents, records from state agencies, police departments, and court filings over the last four years. (Hyosub Shin / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dedicated itself to finding out whether that’s what is really going on in these facilities.

And we’ve found that you just can’t trust that Google search when it comes to the senior care industry.

Too often, these facilities fail to provide the high-end care they promise. Many struggle to even provide the most basic care, resulting in injuries, humiliation and death, our investigation found.

In a series of disturbing stories that we'll publish beginning today through the end of this year, the AJC looked closely at this booming industry by examining thousands of documents, records from state agencies, police departments, and court filings over the last four years. Reporters also spoke with experts, industry officials, residents and their families.

Among our findings:

  • Georgia fails to adequately protect seniors in assisted living communities and large personal care homes. These include cases where homes failed to take proper steps to protect residents who fell repeatedly and cases where residents pushed their emergency call pendants/buttons and waited hours for someone to respond.
  • These facilities largely rely on low-wage workers who may not be properly vetted or trained and who may be given unreasonable workloads. Two out of every five homes were cited for training violations, even though Georgia has lower standards than other states.
  • A fourth of all homes have been cited for failing to complete criminal background checks of workers. Eleven of these facilities were cited for employing someone whose criminal record should have barred them from working in senior care facilities.
  • Inadequate staffing is a significant reason for problems. Nearly a fifth of all Georgia facilities have been cited for failing to have enough qualified workers on duty to meet residents' needs.
  • Information about these homes compiled by the Department of Community Health, the state agency that licenses and inspects them, is vague, incomplete, outdated and confusing. That makes it nearly impossible for members of the public to find out about what's happening in these facilities.
  • State regulators don't have crucial information from other government agencies. We found crimes, such as theft, abuse and exploitation, in spot checks of police reports that weren't reflected in DCH inspection reports. We also found cases where homes failed Department of Public Health food facility inspection, but Department of Community Health public records made no mention of them.
  • Facilities themselves are failing to report serious incidents as required. Nearly 30 percent of facilities have been cited for failing to report to state regulators or to police serious incidents as required.

These regulatory failures lead to this kind of statistic: in more than 100 cases, facilities lost dementia residents. Because alarms failed or doors weren’t properly locked or there wasn’t enough staff on duty, these people escaped the facility. Some were found wandering along busy roadways. One was found sitting in a creek. Some spent the night outdoors in cold temperatures.

» READ INSTALLMENT 1: A beloved father, a night of betrayal

» LISTEN BELOW: Carrie Teegardin discusses the "Unprotected" series on GPB's "On Second Thought"

Another particularly disturbing part of our reporting: the leaders of Georgia’s DCH demonstrate an alarming lack of accountability.

Top officials repeatedly refused to meet with the AJC to answer questions about their work. A DCH spokesman said it wasn’t in their “best interest” to grant an interview and agency leaders would only answer questions in writing. And even then, they ignored some questions.

They said in a written response to reporters’ questions that the facilities themselves are responsible for reporting suspected crimes, not the agency.

DCH doesn’t track of analyze deaths in these facilities; since 2015 the AJC identified 20 deaths tied to violations the agency itself found.

Our reporter talked to a man who was searching for a facility for his wife.

“You always wonder about what is the true story behind this place,” he said. “You still have that feeling in your stomach. Is she going to be safe? Is she going to be taken care of? Are they going to remember to feed her?

Our journalists have dedicated themselves to this story over the past year, so that you can know the true stories behind these places. We'll provide them in the printed AJC and at AJC.com. You can also search for all the information we have on each of these homes at AJC.com/unprotected.

We hope this work helps as you consider how to care for your family member. You’ll want to know the things a Google search won’t tell you.