In late January 2013, Eleanor Buckingham, a resident at a continuing care retirement community operated by Brookdale Senior Living, died of sepsis while in the community's care. The facility, which changed its name from Emeritus at Santa Rosa to Brookdale Fountaingrove following Eleanor's death, agreed to a $1 million settlement in the wrongful death and elder abuse lawsuit brought against them.
Eleanor was admitted to the community's skilled nursing unit in November 2012, which was meant for patients requiring specialized care and restorative therapies. She planned to obtain rehabilitation following a bacterial skin infection then move in with her daughter who lived in a nearby town.
While in skilled nursing, staff at Emeritus noticed that Eleanor had a pressure sore on her back, likely caused by prolonged pressure while confined to a bed. The community failed to take immediate action to assist Eleanor in recovering from her pressure sore, either by treating the ulcer or making accommodations to impede further damage.
January 15, 2013, was Eleanor's last day in skilled nursing. Her Medicare would no longer cover the unit's expenses. She was downgraded from the skilled nursing to the assisted living unit, and her specialized treatment ceased. Four days after her transfer to assisted living, a specialist examined her pressure ulcer. It had grown twice in size since she was first admitted to skilled nursing and had become infected. Eleanor was then sent to a hospital.
Eight days after arriving at a hospital for treatment of her infected pressure ulcer, she died of sepsis, a complication caused by the body's response to infection, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.
The lawsuit filed against Emeritus claims that the staff failed to provide adequate treatment to Eleanor for her pressure sores until they became infected. At that point, it was already too late. Her family also alleged that Emeritus employed staff without proper training and let profits dictate their treatment decisions. This is clear from the absence of action when Eleanor's ulcer was first noticed and for the three months following that she was in the care of the skilled nursing unit.
Although Eleanor's cause of death was sepsis, this was a direct result of her pressure sore becoming infected. Unfortunately, Eleanor's case is not unique. The population of people ages 65 and older is about 14.5%. That means that more than one in seven people in the U.S. are 65 or older. With the number of seniors in America expected to grow, we can assume that the number of seniors in continuing care retirement communities will also increase.
Eleanor's death leaves many questions unanswered. As we remain vigilant of elder abuse in continuing care retirement communities, we must first look for the signs.
What is a pressure sore?
A pressure sore, also known as a bedsore or pressure ulcer, is a type of irritation to the skin caused by pressure being placed on a single area of skin for an extended period. These typically occur in areas where skin covers a bony part.
How are pressure sores prevented?
Pressure sores are prevented through frequent motion. For patients who are immobile or constrained to a wheelchair or a bed, this may be achieved by changing positions to provide relief to areas that are under constant pressure. Patients in a wheelchair can spend time standing (if possible) or lying down, and those who are bedridden can try elevating or repositioning their bodies.
How are pressure sores treated?
The first step in treating pressure sores is reducing further pressure. Special support surfaces, which are typically foam, water-, or air-filled, help to relieve pressure and protect areas of the skin that are vulnerable to ulcers. Wounds should be cleaned frequently to prevent infection. If the wound is not broken, water and mild soap can be used. If the wound has already broken, it should be cleaned with a saline solution. The pressure ulcers should then be dressed with films, gauzes, gels, and treated coverings. This helps to create a barrier against infection and keep the surrounding area dry to promote healing. Pain relievers and topical or oral antibiotics can be prescribed by a doctor if needed.
What duty of care must a continuing care retirement community maintain to treat a patient's pressure sores?
Pressures sores are not only painful but can be fatal if an infection is not treated, as we have seen in past cases like Eleanor Buckingham's. A facility that provides medical attention and rehabilitation to patients has a standard duty of care to assess a patient's risks of developing pressure ulcers and provide the appropriate treatment and nursing care to treat them. Failing to properly monitor and provide treatment to a patient for pressure sores or other complications may be considered negligence and elder abuse if the lack of care was the cause of a more serious condition or death.
What is elder abuse?
Elder abuse refers to an intentional or negligent act by a person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult's physical, mental, or emotional health. Neglect, a form of elder abuse, includes the failure to provide adequate care, supervision, and services as required to maintain the well-being of a vulnerable adult. This may include supervision and medical services needed for their physical and mental health.
What should I do if I suspect that a continuing care retirement community is committing elder abuse?
If you suspect elder abuse, the first step you should make is reporting it. Florida statutes require that any person that knows or who has reasonable cause to suspect elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation, must immediately report it. You can do so by calling the Florida Abuse Hotline. All calls are confidential.
Abuse Hotline: 1-800-96-ABUSE (22873)
Telephone Device for the Deaf: 1-800-453-5145
Online reporting: https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us/
Should I consult a lawyer?
After reporting actual or suspected elder abuse to the appropriate state agency, you should speak to an experienced attorney to determine if you have a case for a lawsuit. You may be able to claim compensation for damages.
Elderly people are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. At Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, we fight to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals against institutions that seek to breach those rights. We have the experience to review your case to determine if a claim of elder abuse can be made. For a free consultation to review your case, please call us at (727)451-6900 or email us through our Contact Us page. We work for you and don't recover anything unless you do.