Some states call them assisted living facilities; others, residential or personal care homes. These state-licensed facilities promise peace of mind for families whose elders require long-term care. In Vermont and elsewhere, investigations into these homes have revealed lax oversight, injuries and deaths.
Few understand the risks like June Kelly. Her mother, Marilyn Kelly, was energetic and loved to go fishing when she moved into Our House Too, a 13-bed facility that advertised its memory-care expertise. Over the next eight months, almost everything went wrong that could.
Often, her daughters arrived to find their 78-year-old mom in a stupor. June arrived one day to discover Marilyn trying to feed herself but unable to find her mouth with her fork.
"She was in her pajamas, and there was excrement down her arm," she recalled.
June, who held her mom's power of attorney, eventually discovered that Our House Too was giving Marilyn daily doses of a sedating and controversial antipsychotic called Haldol without either woman's consent.
After two bouts of lice and a rotten tooth came the final blow: An overnight staffer was caught on camera shoving Marilyn to the floor. Marilyn died a month later from pneumonia. The staffer pleaded guilty to assault.
Now, the Kelly family is suing the care home and Marilyn's prescribers, alleging neglect and wrongful death.
The defendants have denied all allegations.
"We're almost 19 years old, and I'm still as passionate today as I've always been about the work that we do and the way that we do it," said Paula Patorti, the facility's owner.
In an investigation, Vermont Public Radio and the alt-weekly Seven Days found that the kind of ordeals Marilyn Kelly endured are not uncommon in Vermont.
A review of nearly six years of inspection reports revealed troubling patterns of inadequate care. At least five residents have died in accidents related to deficient care, and the majority of homes have been cited for severe infractions. One home's owner told regulators that it was easier to accept a citation than to give staff the dozen hours of required annual training.
Homes that provide poor care are rarely fined by state regulators, who are acutely aware of their state's need for long-term care beds. Vermont has one of the oldest populations in the nation, and people with dementia, such as Marilyn Kelly, can wait months for placement at a facility.
"We need to ensure that there is capacity across the state of Vermont to care for Vermonters," said Monica Hutt, the state's top long-term care regulator. "We need to ensure it's of the highest quality. There is an enormous amount of balancing that happens to make that true."
The state is currently revising its 20-year-old rules for residential care homes. Hutt has said her department will incorporate changes based on this investigation.
Vermont is not the only place where journalists have uncovered inadequate care and oversight at state-licensed long-term care facilities. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Oregonian and PBS and ProPublica have published similar findings, with databases designed to help consumers.
"It could have been any state," said Lori Smetanka after learning about VPR and Seven Day's findings in Vermont. Smetanka is executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, an advocacy group.
Nursing homes were designed for high-needs residents and are heavily regulated by the federal government. Assisted living and other state-regulated homes were designed for healthier residents and are lightly regulated. Yet increasingly, Smetanka said, families avoid nursing homes, choosing assisted living-type residences for vulnerable loved ones.
"That is a recipe for problems," she said.
There are ways consumers can make informed decisions. Smetanka suggested visiting a place at different times of the day.
"Don't be wowed just by, like, the fancy chandeliers or the pretty decorations or things like that. Really look at what's going on in that facility," she said.
In particular, she said, watch out for unfriendly staff interactions, unpleasant smells and sounds of distress. Confirm the staffing numbers. And do research. Ask your state's long-term care ombudsman about what kinds of complaints have come in about the facility; read its contract for pricey add-ons; and get a hold of the facility's state inspection reports.
This investigation is a collaboration between Vermont Public Radio and Seven Days.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Some states call them assisted-living facilities; others, personal care homes or residential care communities. They all promise peace of mind for families whose elders require long-term care. But in Vermont and at least two other states, investigations into state-licensed facilities have revealed lax oversight and injuries, even deaths. As Vermont Public Radio's Emily Corwin reports, these problems are more widespread than you might expect. And a warning to our listeners - this story details abuse and neglect.
EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: Marilyn Kelly was energetic. She loved to go fishing, but she had dementia. And at 78 years old, she was making unsafe decisions, so her family decided to move her to a 13-bed facility in Rutland, Vt., called Our House Too. It advertised its memory care expertise. Over the next eight months, almost everything went wrong that could.
JUNE KELLY: It was like a calamity of errors, one right after the other.
CORWIN: June Kelly, Marilyn's daughter, had power of attorney. She says her mother was sedated without their knowledge. According to court filings, staff gave Marilyn an antipsychotic daily despite a black box warning against its use for dementia symptoms.
KELLY: Well, there was one day we walked in and she was air fork feeding herself and not getting the food to her mouth. And she was in her pajamas, and there was excrement on her arm.
CORWIN: Kelly says Marilyn was neglected. Her tooth rotted. She got lice. And then she was assaulted. A staffer shoved Marilyn to the floor and left her there. The person later pleaded guilty in court. A month after the incident, Marilyn died of pneumonia. Now the Kelly family is suing the care home and Marilyn's prescribers, alleging neglect and wrongful death. The defendants have denied all allegations. Paula Patorti, the owner of Our House Too, wouldn't comment on the case, but she says this.
PAULA PATORTI: We're almost 19 years old, and I'm still as passionate today as I've always been about the work that we do and the way that we do it.
CORWIN: In an investigation, Vermont Public Radio and the newspaper Seven Days found the kind of ordeals Marilyn Kelly endured are not uncommon in Vermont. In nearly six years of complaints and inspection reports, we found inadequate care had led to injuries, indignities and at least five deaths. The majority of homes had severe infractions. One home's owner told regulators it was easier to accept a citation than to give staff their 12 required hours of annual training. Vermont has one of the oldest populations in the nation. People with dementia like Marilyn Kelly can wait months for a placement. That capacity problem is one reason Monica Hutt, Vermont's top long-term care regulator, gave when we asked why her office rarely levies fines or closes homes that violate the rules.
MONICA HUTT: You know, we need to ensure that there is capacity across the state of Vermont to care for Vermonters. We need to ensure that it's of the highest quality. There is an enormous amount of balancing that happens to make that true.
CORWIN: The state is updating its regulations, however, and Hutt says she will incorporate changes based on our investigation. But when it comes to long-term care, Vermont is not an outlier.
LORI SMETANKA: It could have been any state.
CORWIN: Lori Smetanka is the executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a D.C. advocacy group. She says our findings in Vermont are not surprising. Nursing homes were designed for high needs residents and are heavily regulated by the feds for that reason. But increasingly, families are trying to avoid nursing homes, choosing assisted-living-type residences for vulnerable loved ones. And Smetanka says these state-licensed facilities are lightly regulated and receive little oversight. Taken altogether...
SMETANKA: That is a recipe for problems.
CORWIN: Smetanka does have suggestions for future consumers. First, she says, plan ahead. You don't want to be choosing a facility in a crisis. Visit at different times of day. Watch the interactions and try the food.
SMETANKA: Don't be wowed just by, like, the fancy chandeliers or the pretty decorations or things like that. Like, really look at what's going on in that facility.
CORWIN: Smetanka says you should check the contract for pricey add-ons and read the inspection reports.
For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin in Vermont.
KELLY: And this investigation was a collaboration between Vermont Public Radio and the alt weekly Seven Days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.