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Many nursing home residents dying from day-to-day neglect and abuse, expert say

By Jonathan Sher, The London Free Press

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It took the murder of eight elderly people to draw a spotlight to dangers lurking in Ontario nursing homes, but many more residents die each year from mundane neglect and abuse, a leading expert says.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Jane Meadus of the Toronto-based Advocacy Centre for the Elderly.

A killing spree by nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer in two Southwestern Ontario nursing homes is the stuff of horror movies and fodder for a public inquiry announced during the summer.

But if lives are to be saved, the Ontario government must give Justice Eileen Gillese clear and broader authority to investigate the many ways that daily care falls short for many of the 70,000 residents in long-term care facilities, Meadus said.

It’s a point also being pressed at Queen’s Park by the provincial NDP.

“They have to have a broad inquiry,” Meadus said.

Many residents die because of poor care but no one is held accountable because their families don’t know they can turn to a coroner and seek an independent investigation, she said. That lack of knowledge leaves long-term care homes reporting themselves what led to a resident’s death, and they typically chalk it up to natural causes.

Which nursing homes are “going to report themselves that they were negligent?” Meadus said.

Problems with care are evident to two families who say their loved ones have received slip-shod care that placed them in harm’s way.

“There are so many horror stories,” said Londoner Peggy Clark, who says her mother Lola Nesseth, 83, has endured crisis after crisis while her family sought better care.

While Nesseth struggled with two types of dementia since 2011, her condition worsened after she was admitted in March 2016 to peopleCare Oakcrossing in London. She became so agitated, staff treated her with antipsychotic medication for three months, Clark said.

It turned out she needed a simple antibiotic for a urinary track infection that went undetected.

In six months, the home moved Nesseth three times, the worst of the moves the day after the family met with staff to voice their concerns. Clark said family members found their mother the next day in a new room with personal hygiene products mixed in with dirty laundry in a bin, clothes on the floor of the closet and a bookshelf gone missing.

“It really did feel (like retaliation) by management,” Clark said. “I was balling my eyes out. . . . It broke my heart.”

Basic dietary needs were neglected, she said. Staff failed to cut Nesseth’s food and left her with pudding packs she could not open herself. In 15 months, her weight plummeted, from 125 pounds to 99 pounds.

Clark said that nurses and personal support workers generally did their best, but there were too few of them, too little training and a frustrating lack of leadership by management.

Asked about her concerns, the president of Waterloo-based peopleCare Communities, Elaine Shantz, said privacy concerns meant she couldn’t speak about Nesseth’s care, but she encouraged the family to approach her.

“We take our commitment to our residents very seriously and we are always disappointed when we cannot meet the expectations of the residents or their families,” she wrote to The Free Press. “I am open to speaking with the family to hear about their concerns and to learn from the experience.”

Laurie Carr of St. Thomas said she encountered troubling care for her grandmother Helen Holland at the London-owned Dearness Home. Among her concerns:

• Staff twice secured Holland’s call bell where she could not reach it, once tying it to the bottom rail of her bed, creating a risk that Holland would try to walk and would fall. When Carr complained to a head nurse, she said she was told not to worry because staff check on residents every two hours.

• A personal support worker left the door to her room open while she was naked.

• A vibrating mattress to prevent bed sores has been found unplugged eight times.

• The home terminated without warning a program administered by two personal support workers she trusted that had helped her manage her anxiety.

• The home resisted the family request to meet to discuss their concerns because there had already been a meeting earlier that year, Carr said.

As bad as it has been for Holland, Carr worries about other residents who don’t have nearby family to look after them and voice concerns.

“What happens to those poor people who have no one advocating for them?” said Carr, who once worked as a personal support worker herself.

Her concerns elicited the same sort of reply from London city hall as Clark’s complaints did from peopleCare Communities.

“(To) protect the privacy of all of our residents, it would not be appropriate to respond directly to the questions with respect to the care of the resident,” wrote Sandra Datars Bere, the city’s managing director of housing, social services and the Dearness Home.

“The City of London endeavours to provide a supportive and safe environment for the residents of Dearness Home and is monitored by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care regarding compliance with ministry legislation. . . . (Any) residents and/or their family members (who) have any concerns with respect to care should contact the nursing managers and Dearness Home administrator for assistance. The family may also connect with me directly.”

But the current system is broken and needs to be fixed, said London-Fanshawe MPP Teresa Armstrong, the NDP critic for long-term care. “We know there’s a crisis and it’s about time for the government to act,” she said.

The NDP has asked ruling Liberals to expand their public inquiry to examine systemic problems and not just those that led to the string of murders by Wettlaufer between 2007 and 2014 at nursing homes in Woodstock and London.

The two London-area families aren’t waiting for politicians to act. Clark’s family moved Holland to Westmont Gardens in June while Carr is trying to move her grandmother to Elgin Manor. 

jsher@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jsheratLFPress

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THE INQUIRY

  • Justice Eileen Gillese will lead a public inquiry into the circumstances and systemic issues that enabled nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer to murder seven residents at Woodstock’s Caressant Care and kill an eighth at London’s Meadow Park, part of a killing rampage that also included four murder attempts and two serious assaults.
  • Ontario’s Liberal government has limited the scope of the inquiry to failings that played some role in Wettlaufer’s killing spree.
  • Gillese must complete a report by July 31, 2019, which will later be made public but presumably well after the next Ontario election that must occur by June 2018.
  • Ontario New Democrats are demanding the Liberals expand the inquiry to include systemic failures not connected to Wettlaufer crimes such as funding, safety of residents and staff and quality of care.