Protecting the elderly

New group rallies to increase awareness, call for changes; agencies say cases are taken seriously

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John Tormino carries signs west near Lakewood Drive as protesters converge on the corner at Northwest Boulevard Thursday afternoon to protest the alleged abuse of elderly in assisted living facilities.  

COEUR d'ALENE - A new local grassroots group has formed to help keep elderly residents SAFE.

About 40 people associated with Silver Angels for the Elderly (SAFE) rallied at the busy intersection of Northwest Boulevard and Lakewood Drive on Thursday, hoping to increase awareness about elderly abuse and call for more oversight and stricter standards at senior care facilities and with private caregivers.

"We are the angels; the mighty, mighty angels," group members chanted. "What are we here for? We're fighting for the elderly."

Many of the participants were dressed in attire for the elderly - one man even donned a diaper - and other costumes. Some arrived with walkers or sat in wheelchairs as rush-hour traffic passed.

"Agencies (that protect seniors from abuse) need to be shaken at the core," said Diane Zell, a Hayden resident who helped start SAFE. "We need an oversight or ethics committee."

Rally participants held signs such as "Old lives matter" and "Warning Baby Boomers: U R next."

Zell believes her late mother, Marion, was physically and chemically abused at an area assisted living facility, so she took her mom out of the facility. Zell filed a complaint with the Idaho Bureau of Facility Standards that's pending.

"My mother was given sleeping medication that was not prescribed and drugs for anxiety were withheld," Zell said, adding that it took 14 months to hear back from someone regarding her complaint.

Zell said she learned that she had plenty of company with elderly abuse concerns, so SAFE was formed to give the elderly and their families a voice. The group - which is sponsored by Kasem Cares Foundation, which also aims to reduce elderly abuse - developed a website for families to share their stories similar to Zell's, to provide a forum to have their complaints exposed and to increase awareness.

"Our elderly need a voice," Zell said.

Zell said complaints can be posted anonymously and will be shepherded by the group through the process with the permission of the family.

SAFE believes facility administrators should have a medical review to expose their mental health history, have their credit checked and be required to be on site for more than 35 hours per week. It also believes facilities should only be allowed to open on an "as-needed" basis, based on demographics.

The group also believes there should be independent audit of oversight agencies and a North Idaho branch of Facility Standards to expedite investigations. It also calls for agencies to respond to family complaints within two weeks of the start of the investigation. Numbers to contact if a complaint arises should also be posted on all elderly residents' rooms, the group believes.

State officials say one case of elderly abuse is too many and that such complaints are a priority.

"Looking after the long-term care of Idaho's senior citizens is a noble calling and an important responsibility that the vast majority of providers treat with the skilled professionalism and attention to detail that our seniors require and deserve," Gov. Butch Otter said in a written statement. "Any report of abuse or neglect is taken seriously and will be treated in accordance with applicable laws and regulations."

Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which certifies nursing homes and assisted living facilities and investigates abuse cases for nursing homes, said his agency hasn't noticed a spike in abuse cases in North Idaho in recent years.

"Most elderly abuse cases do not occur in facilities but in homes," Shanahan said.

Health and Welfare applauds SAFE's efforts to increase awareness about elderly abuse, Shanahan said.

"We'd be interested in partnering with them and, if they have any suggestions, we'd be open to it," he said. "For us, elderly abuse is our top priority. Get in touch with us. If there is a problem, hopefully we can work together and find solutions."

Some demonstrators stood farther up Lakewood Drive near the Area Agency on Aging of North Idaho, which investigates abuse allegations at assisted living facilities and determines whether police should be contacted.

Staff at the AAA of North Idaho could not be reached for comment via telephone on Thursday. The office was closed during the rally. A message left with the Idaho Commission on Aging in Boise on Wednesday was not returned.

Coeur d'Alene's Lorrie Bunes, who formerly worked at assisted living facilities, said she participated in the rally because many elderly people don't have a voice or families to turn to. She said she hopes that she's making a difference for future generations.

"My husband is a disabled veteran and I want to know that if I'm not taking care of him that he'll be taken care of," she said while handing out fliers. "There needs to be transparency so that, if a complaint is made, it will be followed through on. We're raising awareness to an issue that needs to be addressed."

Zell said ongoing cases of abuse such as her mom's situation and last month's arrest of caregiver Phillip Ray Smalley, who was arrested after being accused of sexual misconduct involving two elderly women at a Spirit Lake facility, are fueling her drive to help the elderly.

She said there are some fine local facilities that are well-managed, but the ones that are not - or employees who commit crimes - should be exposed. She said state agencies and senior care facilities should know that the group is watching out for the elderly and how investigations are being conducted.

"Just be careful about where you place your parents or loved ones," she said. "It's something we need to be hyper-vigilant about."

Dale Robinson, 84, participate in a demonstration lead by the Silver Angles for the Elderly on Lakewood Drive Thursday in Coeur d’Alene.  About 40 gathered to protest the alleged abuse of the elderly in nursing homes

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