Last fall, my then-97-year-old mother, Elaine Benz, was evicted from the senior living facility known as the Regency, in New Berlin, Wisconsin, where she had lived for ten years. My sister, Diane, was told on Thursday, October 28, that our mom would not be allowed to return the following morning, as planned, from a physical rehabilitation center to which she had been sent following a fall. The Regency had decided her needs had gotten too great.
This is my attempt to share the story’s full arc, which culminated in a meeting this month with the state Department of Health Services officials. It is an extraordinary tale in its particulars, given the actions of the state.
But in general, I learned, there is nothing unusual about it. What happened to my mother happens to elderly people in America all the time. A facility will conclude that a patient has become too much work or is no longer a good deal financially and find a way to get rid of her. Often, as with Elaine, nursing homes and other senior care facilities evict residents while they are temporarily moved to another facility.
Like the federal law governing nursing homes nationwide, Wisconsin law requires providers including the Regency to give residents 30 days advance notice before an involuntary discharge. But the experts I spoke to said this seldom happens.
“It is rare for a resident to ever get 30 days’ notice,” Chicotel told me. That’s because doing so involves informing residents of their right to appeal, which facilities don’t want because residents who do appeal usually win. “The benefits of breaking the law are greater than the cost of breaking the law. So, consequently, you get a lot of law-breaking.”
Both the state and federal laws provide an exemption from the 30-day notice if there’s an emergency, meaning that the person poses “an immediate and documented threat to the health or safety of the tenant or of others,” as the Wisconsin law puts it. This is what the Regency claimed to be the case in a letter we received via email on November 4, a full week after our mom was evicted. It also argued that she required more than 28 hours of direct care per week, beyond what the facility was licensed to provide. She has never needed or received this level of care, even to this day.
Again, this is par for the course. Eric Carlson, director of long-term services and supports advocacy with Justice in Aging, a national legal advocacy group, told me that in most cases where a resident’s needs are said to have gotten too great, “the resident is still within” the level of care the facility is licensed to provide.