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The tragedy of two families can spare you a deadly experience at a California nursing home.
Two easy-to-use websites can now help you find the best nursing home care for an elderly parent or loved one.
These databases let you read inspection reports for thousands of nursing homes in the U.S. and here in San Diego County.
It’s powerful information that reveals why your choice of a care home can truly have life or death consequences.
Our NBC 7 Investigates team talked with two families who wish they’d known much more before they made their choices.
“Judy” asked us to use only her first name, to protect her family’s privacy.
But she talked openly about what happened to her mother, when the family had to move her to a nursing home.
“I did my research,” Judy told us. “I did my research on-line. I went out on foot. I made phone calls. I checked with the health department reports.”
But Judy said all that work wasn’t enough to protect her mother.
She says a nursing aide put her mom in a bathtub, filled with water that was much too hot, and kept her there too long.
“And she started to cry, and the caregiver said, ‘Don’t be a cry-baby’ and left the room.”
But that bath was more than just painful. Judy said it caused a very bad burn, the size of a dinner plate, that covered her mother’s entire bottom area.
The wound got infected, Judy told us.
There were other medical complications as well.
Judy quickly moved her mother to another facility and with help from her sister stayed almost constantly at her mother’s bedside.
But her mom never recovered.
“And it happened very quickly,” Judy said of her last night with her mother, “I closed my eyes to rest. And all of a sudden it just kind of got quiet. I looked over at her, and she was gone.”
Judy’s family sued the nursing home, which is located in San Diego. They won a substantial settlement, the terms of which are confidential.
But more than the money, Judy wants to hold nursing homes accountable for their negligence. Looking back, she says there were warning signs she wishes she had paid more attention to.
“Her room just started getting really messy. Clothes on the floor and soiled towels in the bathroom. It’s like they left her.”
Judy wishes she had asked more questions, and demanded answers. The family’s attorney agrees.
“If your intuition is telling you that something’s wrong, act on it,” elder abuse law expert Randy Walton told NBC 7 Investigates.
Walton also said families should not be shy about voicing their concerns about the care of their loved one.
“You’ve got to be a squeaky wheel in these places,” Walton said.
He suggests that before you choose a facility, you should talk with other residents and their family. Inspect the kitchen, bathrooms and activity rooms.
And when you make your choice, get to know the employees who are actually taking care of your loved one. Those relationships helped Anastasia Howard.
She told NBC 7 Investigates that two nursing aides warned her about something other employees were trying to hide about her mother’s condition. Howard learned that her mother had been forced to walk, despite a painful fall.
“I was speechless,” Howard recalled. ”The frustration anxiety from that, words don’t describe it.”
Howard says her mother couldn’t ask for help, because she had severe Alzheimer’s disease.
”Simply because she couldn’t speak, and couldn’t voice her concerns, she was easily just brushed under the rug because she couldn’t cry out or be the squeaky wheel,” she said.
Howard said she later learned that her mother had fallen not once, but twice, and broken her hip. She says the staff ignored that serious injury, so Howard moved her mother to another facility.
But Howard and her attorney said Howard’s mother developed ulcerated bedsores and eventually died from infection.
“It was terrible,” Howard said. “The worst possible outcome.”
Her attorney, Joel Bryant, said family members or friends should make frequent and unannounced visits to the facility, especially after dark, to learn the truth about the quality of patient care.
“Is this a facility that late at night has residents who should be in their room, but are wandering around?,” said Bryant. “Are there no nurses at the nursing station, or are the nurses, instead of checking on residents in their rooms, are they watching television?”
Their attorney, who is an expert in nursing home and elder care law, said families must remember that nursing homes are a business, and some will cut staff levels and training to dangerous levels to maximize profit.
“We’ve seen that sometimes spending another fifty dollars would have been the difference between life and death,” Bryant said.
But elder care expert Sophia Q.N. Lukas said these “horror stories” are an exception to the otherwise excellent care offered at California nursing homes.
“Every day I seeing staff that are caring and compassionate and really find it a calling to work in this industry,” Lukas told NBC 7 Investigates.
She says the majority of caregivers form very strong bonds and very personal ties with their elderly clients.
“It’s a tough job to be a caregiver or a nurse in this industry. And you won’t do it unless it’s truly what you love to do.”
As for “Judy” and her family, they want everyone to remember what they say is the most important piece of advice.
“If I had a message for anyone, it would be, ‘Do not put a loved one in a facility and not be there to watch closely and advocate for that person.’”