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Senate to Review Assisted Living in Response to Recent Washington Post Articles

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A committee of the U.S. Senate is slated to hold a hearing soon to study assisted living, a move spurred by a recent Washington Post investigation.

The Post revealed on Jan. 16 that Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, is launching a new review of safety within the assisted living sector in light of the newspaper’s reporting last month. A hearing entitled “Assisted Living Facilities: Understanding Long-Term Care Options for Older Adults,” was also scheduled for Jan. 25.

In a letter to executives of the three largest operators of assisted living in the U.S. – Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), Atria Senior Living and Sunrise Senior Living – Casey asked for more information on the number of elopements in their communities and how they inform families of other incidents such as falls, injuries and violent interactions with other residents.

Casey also is asking for more information on the costs incurred by residents and their families in light of a recent New York Times investigation on the high cost of assisted living.

Casey told the Post that he was focused on “a set of cascading crises” related to staffing, oversight, how operators inform families and quality of care.

“It’s terribly disturbing,” Casey told the Washington Post. “It’s a basic violation of trust when you’re making assertions about a service you’re providing and you’re not providing that.”

In December, the Post found that nearly 100 senior living residents have died after wandering away from their assisted living and memory care communities since 2018. The investigation also detailed chronic understaffing in senior living communities.

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The article elicited strong pushback from senior living industry associations and companies shortly after it was published. That included industry association Argentum, which has said that the Post’s reporting, although tragic, represents just a small number of the many residents who safely live in senior living communities.

On Tuesday, Argentum CEO James Balda told Senior Housing News that the reporting centered on “isolated incidents” of resident elopement and that assisted living communities take those incidents “very seriously.” He added that the fatalities stemming from resident wandering are “exceedingly rare” and represent a very small fraction of the more than 6.2 million residents who were served between 2018 and 2023.

“Our communities look forward to demonstrating to the committee that, as the nation grapples to care for our aging population, assisted living provides independence and dignity for seniors,” Balda said. “Nothing is more important than our residents’ safety, and any fatality is devastating for our staff, our residents, and their families. Argentum strongly supports state regulations already in place to investigate incidents and punish any wrongdoing.”

David Schless, President and CEO of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA), had similar sentiments Tuesday. In a statement dated Jan. 16, Schless said that the Washington Post stories “inaccurately imply that [elopements] are a common occurrence in assisted living and memory care communities.”

“The Washington Post articles are missing important context related to caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias, and neglect to discuss the inherent dangers that exist for those with dementia being cared for informally in their traditional homes,” Schless wrote. “The fact is, assisted living and memory care is a far safer option for those with this diagnosis than living at home.”

National Center for Assisted Living Executive Director LaShuan Bethea said that the organization welcomed the opportunity to speak with Casey and the other members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

“The safety and security of our residents is our utmost priority, and while elopements are rare, any incident where a resident was injured or worse is truly tragic,” Bethea told Senior Housing News. “The assisted living profession is committed to continuing to learn all that we can about dementia and the disease process to meet the ever-changing needs of our residents. Policymakers, providers, and other stakeholders should come together to find ways to advance memory care while honoring why seniors and their families love assisted living.”

Brookdale Communications Manager Jackie Dickson said the Brentwood, Tennessee-based operator was aware of the letter from Casey and working on its response.

“Brookdale values the relationships we have created with our hundreds of thousands of residents at communities across the country over the last decade, and we are committed to providing high quality care. We take seriously our mission of enriching the lives of those we serve with compassion, respect, excellence and integrity,” Dickson said.

A spokesperson for Atria said the company’s “top priority” is resident safety, and that it “look[s] forward to providing information in response to Senator Casey’s letter.”

Sunrise Spokeswoman Heather Hunter told Senior Housing News, “we look forward to reviewing and responding to Senator Casey’s letter on the assisted living industry with candor and transparency.”

The Senate review represents a new potential headache for the industry – as well as a lesson to be learned – as it seeks to engage with and educate the public on the benefits of senior living services. But it also is an opportunity for senior living operators to educate and inform the public on their overall safety record, as some have pointed out.

This is not the first time senior living has come under congressional review. In 2020, a group of lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked the 10 largest operators in the U.S. for more information on Covid-19 and infection control, noting that assisted living communities “deserve particular scrutiny.”

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