Coronavirus pandemic requires renewed focus by California policymakers on eldercare
For California’s seniors, the coronavirus pandemic is an especially terrifying crisis. For the state, it is also a powerful signal that gaping loopholes in protections for this vulnerable and growing population must change.
As a population, people over 70 tend to have weaker immune systems and more underlying conditions that impede their ability to fight the virus. They are also more likely to reside in group living situations, in close quarters. Waves of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes — first in the Seattle area, then near Sacramento and now throughout the nation — have underscored this grim reality. So far, Californians over 65 have made up at least a quarter of the state’s confirmed cases of COVID-19.
But regulations, particularly for assisted living facilities, are perilously behind the curve in safeguarding California’s elders from this virus. Fortunately, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Master Plan on Aging initiative, currently underway, presents an opportunity to aggressively address this danger and take steps to protect millions of older Americans.
If you are over 65 or have an aging parent, you may already be familiar with this widespread issue. As baby boomers age in large numbers, families look for alternatives to traditional nursing homes for loved ones who are living longer. Assisted living centers present an attractive choice; they offer help with personal care and daily needs, including medication, but more resemble comfortable apartments — with private living spaces, active social interaction, movie nights, happy hours and other amenities.
Assisted living centers have been a boon to the eldercare industry and the large corporate owners that now dominate the market. At the same time, however, a lack of regulation and oversight of staffing levels and qualifications — especially requirements for on-site physicians and well-trained medical technicians — has left the industry vulnerable to abuse and tragic outcomes. One glaring issue that must be addressed: assisted living centers are regulated by the state Department of Social Services rather than the Department of Public Health.
But the reality is that assisted living is part of a health care and medical care delivery system, not merely a lifestyle choice. Among my clients is the family of a 77-year-old woman who choked to death in an assisted living facility — not a nursing home — after she was given the psychotropic drug Ativan to chemically restrain her. This tragedy resulted in a record $42.5-million verdict against a major assisted living chain, Eskaton.
Launched last year, Newsom’s Master Plan on Aging has formed an advisory committee, is holding public meetings and in the fall is scheduled to issue a 10-year plan that will address issues from housing and homelessness to emergency preparedness to abuse and neglect. The project has created an “Equity Committee” to receive input from a more diverse group of citizens and organizations, including representatives of the disabled community, Native Americans and other ethnic minorities.
In light of the spreading coronavirus public health crisis, it is imperative that the governor’s Master Plan on Aging takes on a broad and serious public policy role. We don’t need high-level platitudes for addressing the needs of the elderly. We need concrete policies, strong regulations with enforcement teeth and a commitment to sustained oversight.
We all hope and pray that the coronavirus will soon be controlled and subdued. And that when the crisis is behind us, that we continue the important work of protecting the elderly and other vulnerable segments of our citizenry.
Ed Dudensing is former Deputy District Attorney for Sacramento County who represents victims of nursing home neglect and abuse, and represented the plaintiffs in the case described in this article, [email protected].