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Frontline: Life and Death In Assisted Living

(US DVD: 1 Oct 2013)

Elderly care is big business. It’s a fact of American life that is felt deeply in the pockets of those who place their elderly parents and loved ones in nursing homes and assisted living. And the effects can be emotionally draining, as well. But beyond the emotional turmoil that engulfs seniors and their children alike lie hard questions that affect us all: How can we best care for the elderly with debilitating diseases? How can we ensure they are properly treated? How do we serve out the end or out lives with dignity?


Emeritus Senior Living is one of the biggest assisted living corporations in America, a multi-billion dollar company that owns assisted living communities in many states. (Incidentally, one of the banners they fly outside their assisted living homes reads: “Dignity”.) Frontline and ProPublica’s investigative report, Life and Death in Assisted Living, targets the pitfalls and utter neglect of elderly care when the bottom line is driven by profit instead of a commitment to helping seniors care for themselves. After all, the difference between “assisted living” communities and nursing homes are typically based on the patients’ ability to care for him or herself. Additionally, a big difference lies in the types of regulation these businesses receive.


The bottom line? Assisted living communities are not required to to adhere to any federal regulations. Nursing homes are. 


That last statement bears repeating: assisted living communities are not required to adhere to any federal regulations. State regulations can be minimal and training regulations are non-existent—a frightening prospect once you realize that more and more senior citizens are being admitted to assisted living communities with delicate and life-threatening diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.


What’s more startling, however, is that assisted living communities can charge whatever the market allows—usually between $4,000 and $8,000 per month. For anyone that’s been faced with the grueling decision of if, when, or where to place a loved one in assisted living, the financial burdens are an added stress. Paying several thousand dollars a month in care is rarely manageable, and the threat of inferior care is troublesome at best, infuriating (and possibly criminal) at worst.


For Frontline and ProPublica, Life and Death In Assisted Living chronicles incident after incident at Emeritus Senior Living communities and the ensuing lawsuits the result as frustrated families struggle to find some sort of consolation after the deaths and mistreatment of their loved ones. The families are understandably angry, but correspondent A.C. Thomson never fuels their anger. Rather, he tempers it with an objective demeanor and lets the pages and pages of documentation (thousands of incidents, profit charts, and letters of reprimand) lend voice to the family’s anger.


Thomson allows the CEO of Emeritus, Granger Cobb, to speak freely as he explains, to the best of his ability, how he truly believes in caring for the elderly and how the incidents that Thomson profiles are part of the “vast minority”. Correctly, he notes that when you deal with such a large group of at-risk individuals, there are bound to be unfortunate incidents. But this is clearly not a case of a few isolated incidents; this is a repeating pattern of understaffing, overfilling, and poorly training staff to deal with one of the largest and most complex factions of the population.


Life and Death In Assisted Living isn’t damning, but it is damned eye-opening. As a news report, it’s defined by hard work, investigation, and the airing of grievances. As a human interest story, it’s a tragedy of the highest magnitude. All of the families profiled are marred by sadness and regret, even as their lawsuits turn out victorious. But for 50 plus minutes, it’s hard watch money define so much of our dignity, let alone our senior citizens’ final years.


There are no extras with this DVD.

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Scott D. Elingburg is software analyst and freelance writer. His work has appeared in the South Carolina Review, the Southeast Review, Wide Awake Press Anthologies, MetroBeat (formerly Creative Loafing), Charleston Style and Design, and several other publications. Currently he is the book reviews editor and regular contributor at the pop culture website, Stereo Subversion. He's not much of a fisherman, but he does live in Charleston, SC with his wife, daughter, and two cats. Follow him on twitter @staticonthehifi.


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