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PBS’ Frontline slams assisted living; communities cry foul

July 31, 2013
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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Updated 3:30 p.m.

The assisted living industry was dealt a blow in an episode of PBS’ Frontline program last night, and many are accusing the broadcast of being sensationalist in general and against Emeritus Senior Living in particular.

The hour-long documentary, “Life and Death in Assisted Living,” focused on several resident deaths at Emeritus communities. One such case was Joan Boice, a resident who died at an Emeritus assisted living community in Auburn, Calif. A California jury voted that Boice’s death was due to a fatal combination of understaffing, poor care and shoddy oversight, resulting in a $23 million verdict against Emeritus.

Reporters from ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalism organization, spent a year conducting extensive research for the documentary, which focused on four Emeritus assisted living communities. The team wrote a 4-part series that served as the underpinning of the PBS documentary.

Industry leaders faulted the documentary more for its blanket generalizations about the entire assisted living industry than for its reporting on the Emeritus facilities.

“Every single day, over 750,000 American seniors wake up in their assisted living community and have an active and engaging day in a safe, independent and life-enriching environment,” said Richard Grimes, president and CEO of the Assisted Living Federation of America, in a statement Tuesday. “The true story of assisted living won’t be found in television programs like Frontline,” Grimes added. “It’s found in the everyday stories of our residents, and the safe, engaging and active lives they lead every single day.”

The documentary also dealt with the subject of regulatory oversight within the assisted living industry, which is far less structured and less comprehensive than in the skilled nursing arena, where many federal regulations come into play. However, assisted living communities are subject to state regulations.

That just means prospective residents and families need to be proactive about gathering information on a community’s care quality and safety record themselves, Grimes said. “State websites are just one of many sources of information. Before moving into any assisted living community, family members and/or residents should do their own research, seek references, visit several different communities several times, ask tough questions and ask for the community’s state citation record. If the community is not forthcoming, they should find a community that is.”  

Larry Minnix, president and CEO, LeadingAge, posted a detailed and terse letter to LeadingAge members this afternoon, urging organizations to watch the PBS recording of the program so they will be aware of what the public has just seen. “You will feel horrified about the human tragedy that is portrayed,” Minnix wrote. “You will be angry because you know that many people watching—and beyond—will assume that all assisted living is similar to the Frontline depiction. You will feel defensive of good providers who do not deserve to be painted with the same brush that the company in question is painted.”

The broadcast brought three critical issues to light concerning the rapidly changing nature of the senior care industry, Charlotte Eliopoulos, RN, MPH, PhD, executive director of the American Association for Long Term Care Nursing told Long-Term Living. "First, there has been a growing complexity of residents as nursing homes care for residents who once would have received care in an acute hospital setting and people who in the past would have been cared for in nursing homes find their way into assisted living settings that were never intended for that level of care," she said.  "Second, consumers often inappropriately seek assisted living care for their loved ones in need of nursing home care because there is not the same negative history associated with assisted living. And lastly, the hours of care provided per resident and numbers of RNs on staff in most assisted living communities and nursing homes have not kept up with the growing clinical care demands of these residents, creating increased exposure to risk."

Emeritus, the largest assisted living and memory care provider in the country, issued a lengthy advance memo to its employees on July 15. ProPublica obtained and posted the memo, which informed Emeritus employees about the upcoming broadcast and its negative reflection on the company. The memo suggested protocols for preparing media responses in advance and for interacting with reporters after the broadcast aired. The company has not released a statement so far today.

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