Family members get a firsthand look at living conditions
Strict rules barring in-person visitation persist in many homes due to COVID-19 restrictions, but as families and advocates have inched back inside, they’ve frequently been stunned by what they found.
When June Linnertz returned to her father’s room at Cherrywood Pointe in Plymouth, Minnesota, in June for the first time in three months, she was struck by a blast of heat and a wall thermometer that hit 85 degrees. His sheets were soaked in sweat, his hair was plastered to his head and he was covered in bruises Linnertz would learn came from at least a half-dozen falls. His nails had been uncut so long, they curled over his fingertips and his eyes crusted over so badly he couldn’t get them open.
The father, 78-year-old James Gill, screamed, thinking he had gone blind, and Linnertz grabbed an aide in a panic. She snipped off his diaper, revealing genitals that were deep red and skin sloughing off.
Two days later, Gill was dead from Lewy body dementia, according to a copy of his death certificate provided to the AP. Linnertz always expected her father to die of the condition, which causes a progressive loss of memory and movement, but never thought he would end his days in so much needless pain.
“What the pandemic did was uncover what was really going on in these facilities. It was bad before, but it got exponentially worse because you had the squeeze of the pandemic,” Linnertz said. “If we weren’t in a pandemic, I would have been in there. … This wouldn’t have happened.”
The assisted living facility’s parent company, Ebenezer, said: “We strongly deny the allegations made about the care of this resident,” adding that it follows “strict regulatory staffing levels” required by law.
Cheryl Hennen, Minnesota’s long-term care ombudsman, said dozens of complaints have poured in of bedsores, dehydration and weight loss, and other examples of neglect at various facilities, such as a man who choked to death while he went unsupervised during mealtime. She fears many more stories of abuse and neglect will emerge as her staff and families are able to return to homes.
“If we can’t get in there, how do we know what’s really happening?” she said. “We don’t know what we can’t see.”
The nagging guilt of unnecessary death is one Barbara Leak-Watkins understands. It was just in February that her 87-year-old father, Alex Leak, went for a checkup and got lab work that made Leak-Watkins think the Army veteran, contractor and farmer would be with her for a long time to come.
“You’re going to outlive all of us,” Leak-Watkins remembered the doctor saying.
As nursing home outbreaks of COVID-19 proliferated, Leak-Watkins prayed that he be spared. The prayer was answered, but Leak was nonetheless found unresponsive on the floor at Brookdale Northwest in Greensboro, North Carolina, his eyes rolled back and his tongue sticking out.
After he arrived at the hospital, a doctor there called Leak-Watkins with word: Her father had gone so long without water his potassium levels rocketed and his kidneys started failing. He’d be dead two weeks later of lactic acidosis, according to his death certificate, a fatal buildup of acid in the body when the kidneys stop working.
For a man whose military service so drilled the need for hydration into him that he always had a bottle of water at hand, his daughter had never considered he could go thirsty.
“The facility is short-staffed … underpaid and overworked,” Leak-Watkins said. If they “can’t provide you with liquids and fluids to hydrate yourself, there’s something wrong.”
The daughter is considering filing a lawsuit but a North Carolina law granting long-term care facilities broad immunity from suits claiming negligence in injuries or death during the pandemic could stymie her efforts. Similar laws and executive orders have been enacted in more than two dozen states.
The owner of the father’s facility, Brookdale Senior Living, said it couldn’t comment on individual cases but that “the health, happiness and well-being of each of our residents will always be our priority.”
Around the country, the heartache repeats, not only among families who have already buried a member, but also those who feel they are watching a slow-moving disaster.
In Hendersonville, Tennessee, Tara Thompson was able to see her mother for the first time in more than six months when she was hospitalized in October. The 79-year-old had dropped about 20 pounds, her eyes sunken and her legs looking more like forearms. Doctors at the hospital said she was malnourished and wasting muscle. There were bedsores on her backside and a gash on her forehead from a fall at the home. Her vocabulary had shrunk to nearly nothing and she’d taken to pulling the blankets over her head.
The facility Thompson’s mother lived in had been engulfed in virus outbreaks, with more than half its residents testing positive and dozens of employees infected, too. She never caught it, but shaken by the lack of care, Thompson transferred her mother to a new home.
“It has nothing to do with the virus. She’s declined because she’s had absolutely no contact with anybody who cares about her,” she said. “The only thing they have to live for are their families and, at the end of their life, you’re taking away the only thing that matters to them.”
“Failure to thrive” was among the causes listed for Maxine Schwartz, a 92-year-old former cake decorator whose family had been encouraged prior to the lockdown by how well she’d adjusted to her nursing home, Absolut Care of Aurora Park, in upstate New York. Her daughter, Dorothy Ann Carlone, would coax her to eat in the dining room each day and they’d sing songs and have brownies back in her room. Several times a week, Schwartz walked the length of the hallway for exercise.
When the lockdown began March 13, Carlone feared what would happen without her there. She pleaded to staff: “If you don’t let me in to feed her, she won’t eat, she will starve.”
On March 25, when a staffer at the home sent a photo of Schwartz, Carlone was shocked how thin she was. Carlone was told her mother hadn’t been eating, even passing up her favorite brownies.
Two days later, Carlone got an urgent call and when she arrived at the home, her mother’s skin was mottled, she was gasping for breath and her face was so drawn she was nearly unrecognizable. An hour later, she died.
Dawn Harsch, a spokeswoman for the company that owns Absolut Care, noted a state investigation found no wrongdoing and that “the natural progression of a patient like Mrs. Schwartz experiencing advanced dementia is a refusal to eat.”
Carlone is unconvinced.
“She was doing so good before they locked us out,” Carlone said. “What did she think when I wasn’t showing up? That I didn’t love her anymore? That I abandoned her? That I was dead?”
Before the lockdown, Carlone’s mother would wait by an elevator for her to arrive each day. She thinks of her mother waiting there when her visits stopped and knows the pain of the isolation must have played a role in her death.
“I think she gave up,” she said.
Sedensky and Condon reported from New York. AP data journalist Larry Fenn and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.