Sandra McManamon prefers to remember her mother the way she was.
“Spunky,” Sandra said with a smile. “She was a busy bee.”
That’s why it was so difficult to watch what happened.
“After a third stroke, it damaged an area of the brain that she could no longer walk on her own,” Sandra said.
Eventually, dementia set in. Sandra knew she needed help taking care of her mom.
“I mean, no matter what, you always hear stories about nursing homes and the care,” Sandra said. “But I was willing to give it a chance and so was my mom.”
Money was tight. They opted for Golden Living’s Blue Ridge Mountain facility in Dauphin County. Sandra hoped for the best, says nothing could have prepared her for what she saw.
“I can’t sit back and be quiet with what I have witnessed,” Sandra told ABC27.
“The urine and bowel movement odor was a lot of times horrendous,” she continued. “Ants were eating the feces, the breathing equipment they brought in for my mom was caked with black dirt…at one point, it took me seven days to have someone come in and unclog the commode.”
“If I hadn’t been there to put her to bed at night, she would have gotten into a bed that was full of urine and she would have slept in her own feces,” Sandra said. “I was pretty much in tears sometimes because I didn’t want to leave her.”
Sandra felt trapped. Golden Living was the only affordable option, but she believed her mother’s care was getting worse.
“I got there and she was crying desperately in pain,” Sandra said, remembering one example. “They said, ‘Oh, we’ve been watching your mother. We don’t find at this point anything wrong.”
Sandra says staff members refused to call an ambulance.
“It was stated to me that there was a possibility she would lose her bed,” Sandra said. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s a chance I’m willing to take because I need to get my mother to the hospital.”
“At that point, her foot was black,” Sandra continued. “And she had a clot. And the vascular surgeon told me that if i would have waited another 30 minutes, she would have been gone.”
Sandra told ABC27 the situation later repeated itself. Her mom was in pain, and staff would not call an ambulance. But this time, Sandra was not there to advocate, and she would never have a chance to again.
“At the end of her life, they never called me,” Sandra said.
Before continuing with Sandra’s story, you should know she is not alone.
In 2015, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against several Golden Living Centers, based on hundreds of complaints just like Sandra’s.
Golden Living has said the allegations are not true.
ABC27 investigations uncovered similar issues in other facilities all over the state.
Reporter Amanda St. Hilaire sat down with Dr. Karen Murphy, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health for a little more than a year.
“What were your first thoughts,” Amanda asked Dr. Murphy about her first months at the Department of Health. “Did you see any potential improvements?”
“When I came to the Department of Health and began working with the whole staff, we began looking at all the aspects of our work,” Dr. Murphy responded.
Shortly after the Golden Living lawsuit, she invited Auditor General Eugene DePasquale to assess the Department of Health. Dr. Murphy also announced a new nursing home task force. But many families with loved ones in nursing homes have asked if those steps are enough.
“Why haven’t these facilities been shut down,” Amanda asked Dr. Murphy.
“So, the findings in many of our nursing home reports, they are extremely disturbing to myself,” Dr. Murphy responded. “Extremely disturbing to the staff, and certainly not a value the Wolf Administration has for taking care of Pennsylvanians.”
Dr. Murphy went on to say that shutting down a nursing home can actually hurt patients.
For example, shutting down a Golden Living facility means moving 200 residents, many of whom are at risk for injury. Additionally, they would need to go to other nursing homes, many of which are already crowded and struggling with staffing.
There are other actions the state can take, including provisional licenses, fines, and even bans on admitting new residents.
Data from the Department of Health shows a crackdown in 2015, with a 160 percent increase in state actions against nursing homes, along with a 200 percent increase in fines (including Golden Living facilities).
The Department of Health has also changed the process for filing complaints against nursing homes. Previously, people filling out those complaints were required to identify themselves. Now, the process is anonymous. As a result, the Department of Health says it has seen a 34 percent increase in complaints.
“It’s not a one and done,” Dr. Murphy said. “We have to continually evaluate what we’re doing and try to make it better.”
There are also deeper-running issues.
“Our regulations were last revised in 1999,” Dr. Murphy told ABC27. “And we feel that life has changed dramatically for nursing home residents.”
The task force will recommend changes, but Dr. Murphy admits turning recommendations into laws won’t be easy.
That’s where families get frustrated. Remember, Sandra’s story isn’t over.
“There’s got to be a way of finding a remedy to this,” she said. “it’s inhumane how these people are living.”
After realizing she couldn’t afford a lawsuit against Golden Living, Sandra and nine others went to lawmakers. They testified at the Capitol, telling them everything she told ABC27.
“This was two years ago,” Sandra said. “I never heard anything else from them. So to me, where are the people who are supposed to be helping these people when it comes to their rights? When it comes to their dignity?”
Dr. Murphy was not with the Department of Health when Sandra testified at the Capitol. But now, she is promising to bring attention to nursing home concerns.
“How important is it to get this issue right?” Amanda St. Hilaire asked.
“It’s very important,” Dr. Murphy responded. “It is important for every human being to be taken care of at the highest quality care, whether they’re in acute care hospital, whether they’re in a nursing home. This is our most vulnerable state….so it is critically important we get this right.”
That sentiment gives Sandra hope, not only for those who currently can’t help themselves, but also for her mother’s memory.
“I just feel in my heart that she’s helping me do this,” Sandra said, with tears in her eyes.
Both Sandra and Dr. Murphy say they do not want people to blame nursing staff across the board, pointing out that most are doing the best they can with limited resources.