California’s rapidly aging population, and the challenges posed by this so-called “gray wave,” have sparked much discussion among health care experts and policymakers. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Master Plan for Aging, scheduled to be unveiled next year, affirms the need for decisive and strategic action. Reforming the assisted living industry must be a part of this strategy.
The graying of California has been a boon for assisted living programs, as families look for alternatives to traditional nursing homes for loved ones who are living longer. Assisted living centers appear attractive because they more closely resemble homes than hospitals, with comfortable living spaces, social programs and other amenities.
But as the popularity of assisted living continues to grow – and with it the economic clout of corporate owners – oversight and sound health care standards and practices have lagged, imperiling vulnerable people. We can attest to this firsthand: Recently, one of us represented the family of a 77-year-old resident of the long-term care mega-provider Eskaton, who choked to death after she was given powerful sedatives to chemically restrain her.
The answer lies in our dangerous tendency to view assisted living as housing, rather than health care. The level of care required by some assisted living residents can be indistinguishable from the level of care required by some patients in skilled nursing facilities.
Yet staffing and training requirements are far lower for assisted living programs, which, for example, don’t require a physician or nurse on-site, and do not have any minimum staff-to-resident ratios. Rising demand has only intensified the workload for assisted living staff. And the drive for profits creates an incentive to keep staffing levels lean and training minimal.
Since the Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly Act was passed in 1985, there have been numerous efforts to bolster oversight. Unfortunately, most reforms have focused on industry issues such as licensing and liability, and less on quality of care. While there have been additions to the state Health and Safety Code to include tiered “levels of care,” implementation has not followed.
Assisted living has many advantages. But if we are to be successful in caring for our growing ranks of elderly citizens, California needs to reset how it regulates the industry, increasing training, staffing levels and physician and nursing involvement.
This may impact the bottom line, but business priorities can’t supersede delivering responsible long-term care. This is a challenge we all – the governor, Legislature, industry and individual citizens – must confront head-on.