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A scary, behind-the-scenes look at assisted living

Cheryl Morgan (pictured), whose story is featured in "Life and Death in Assisted Living," holds a photo of her late father, who had dementia. He died after drinking unsecured toxic dishwashing liquid at a Georgia assisted living facility.

Assisted-living facilities have been a booming business for the past 15 years.

Originally billed as a more comfortable alternative when one could no longer live on their own, assisted-living companies offered cozier accomodations that a typical nursing home and were also meant for people that needed less medical care.

But since they've first started popping up, the needs of assisted-living patients seem to have shifted. While they may not suffer the same physical disabilities as their counterparts in traditional nursing homes, many of the residents do suffer from dementia or other mental issues associated with age.

And yet these facilities are not regulated very heavily, because they weren't intended to provide much medical care.

A new film, airing tonight on PBS and produced by Frontline and ProPublica, looks closer at the world of assisted-living, and how this booming business is also creating some serious problems for its residents and their families. The film is called "Life and Death in Assisted Living."

"People don't know what's going on in these facilities," says A.C. Thompson, the correspondent on the film. "They don't know what kind of laws -- or lack thereof -- are governing them. In California, we have 7,600 of these in the state. If I wanted to find one for a family member, there is no information available online, from the state, on these facilities."

The lack of regulation has even helped the industry grow, and that's created problems according to Thompson.

"You see these companies, they have a very heavy emphasis on sales. Companies like Emeritus have a market capitalization of a billion dollars. They have $1.6 billion* in revenue last year, and control over 500 facilities over 45 states," he points out. While it is the biggest player in the field, the problems they discovered at Emeritus, says Thompson, "were reflective of the broader industry. So we saw problems with not training their workers properly, not hiring enough workers and staffing the facilities properly."


*CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the total revenue for Emeritus. The company made $1.6 billion in revenue last year. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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