After the Miami Herald reported on hundreds of incidents of neglect and physical abuse within “assisted living” communities across the state over ten years in a 2011 series of articles, industry advocates are stressing the need to define what assisted living really means and the protections it requires.
Since “assisted living” is a broad term within the state, the Florida chapter of the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) is currently seeking legislation that clearly defines whether a community is providing care for the elderly or the mentally ill, as a clear distinction between the two could ensure safer aging in place.
The integration of senior residents with those who are mentally ill, as the system now allows, can be a safety issue, says Paul Williams, senior director of government relations at ALFA.
In a typical AL community that cares for seniors, the average age of residents is 86.9 years old, according to a survey from MetLife on the costs of long-term care.
In many of the cases reported on by the Miami Herald series, age disparity facilitated the risk of violence within assisted living communities, where seniors usually found themselves the victims of temperamental lash-outs and other violent crimes.
“It can be a moment of crisis when people are looking for assisted living,” says Williams. “People want to know they are receiving the right care, for themselves or for their family members.”
However, choosing the right community that best fits an individual’s specific needs can lead to problems if there is not a clear-cut definition, says Gail Matillo, executive director of Florida ALFA. The state’s main regulatory body for seniors, the Department of Elder Affairs (DOEA), by law cannot refer an individual to a specific assisted living community, notes Matillo. All DOEA can do is give individuals a list of all the communities carrying the assisted living name within the state, leaving them to call each one to see if it is the right place for either themselves or their family member.
Helping Consumers Find the Best Fit
One step toward making a clear distinction within assisted living care would be greater transparency, something that Williams suggests could be as simple as truth in advertising, so that consumers know just what type of services they will receive under the assisted living name.
By including clear-cut terms of service in advertisements, disclosures and signage, ALFA believes prospective residents will gain a better understanding of what to expect when deciding to age in an assisting living community.
“There needs to be transparency for consumers in Florida, since the term ‘assisted living’ is [currently] much more encompassing of populations such as the mentally ill,” says Williams. “In other states, if you say ‘assisted living,’ it really only means one thing and that’s care for seniors.”
While security issues related to age disparity are paramount in promoting the well-being of senior residents, a demarcation would also draw the line between the types of care provided to residents.
From daily activities, therapies and medications, there is a completely different kind of care that needs to be provided for mentally ill residents from what is provided for seniors, says Williams.
Currently, residents who require third-party services, such as hospice care, cannot be admitted to assisted living communities in Florida. Defining assisted living as it applies to seniors would enable providers to focus care services on this demographic, allowing residents a full scope of services not already available, such as hospice care and a technician program to administer certain medications.
Including such services for residents, Williams believes, would help bring Florida back as a leader in senior care.
With the state’s legislative session set to begin in March, the prospects of seeing results look promising, Matillo says, after speaking with more than a dozen legislators on various committees.
Standing in the way of possible success is the fear that this year’s session concludes as last year’s did, where a last minute bill was devised and passed in both the state Senate and the House but failed to conjoin before session ended in November, says Matillo.
This time around, ALFA has both time and education on its side.
“Right now, we’re laying the groundwork as far as educating legislators and regulators about our concerns with the transparency issue,” says Williams. “I think we are doing a good job of making ourselves available for the opportunity to be on the minds of legislators to consider amending their bills.”
Written by Jason Oliva
This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit www.alfa.org.