Assisted living's image problem

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Lois A. Bowers
Lois A. Bowers

A 92-year-old woman in Arizona caught the attention of journalists and media consumers across the country this past week when she reportedly told her local sheriff's office that she shot and killed her 72-year-old son because he wanted her to move to an assisted living community.

Deaths resulting from any kind of violence usually are newsworthy. The advanced age of alleged shooter Anna Mae Blessing, among other factors, was what made this incident stand out from others. In video of her first court appearance in court, she gave her responses from a wheelchair and looked frail.

Over time, we'll learn more about Anna Mae and son Thomas, their relationship, why Thomas thought that assisted living was the right place for the next step in his mother's life and why she resisted.

Thomas' tragic death notwithstanding, I'm most interested in the answer to that last question.

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone shared in a Thursday press conference that his office had visited the Blessing residence in the past and that both Anna Mae and Thomas “had expressed concern that the other party could become violent.” Thirteen guns were found on the property, 11 belonging to Thomas and two belonging to Anna Mae, he said. Penzone added that he and others in the office will be examining records related to the previous calls and the handling of the latest incident to determine whether they could have responded differently.

The Blessing case undoubtedly is a complex one, with more probably in play than a simple suggestion of a move to assisted living. But even so, it presents an opportunity for introspection for the senior living industry as well.

I mean, it seems that at least one person thought that assisted living was so terrible that a prison cell was preferable. And yes, this appears to be an extreme case, but it's not the first time that an older adult has resisted moving into a senior living community.

We know that senior living can offer physical and mental health benefits for older adults. So how can the industry improve at allaying their fears and educating them about those benefits?

And what can the industry do to educate the general public about the differences between assisted living communities and skilled nursing centers? More elucidation is needed, as was made obvious by articles in the lay press about the Blessing incident that used “assisted living” and “nursing home” interchangeably, despite a press release from the sheriff's office that specified that Thomas suggested assisted living to his mother (I know; I saw the press release).

We know that assisted living communities are different from SNFs, and we know that both types of facilities have evolved over the years, and yet I see this confusion regularly in the general media. I've seen government officials make this mistake, too.

So what's the solution? Surely, sales professionals educate individual prospects and their family members when they conduct tours and hold special events at their communities. Campaigns such as the American Seniors Housing Association's Where You Live Matters effort undoubtedly help, too, as does the advocacy work by organizations representing senior living operators.

So this isn't meant to be a knock on the industry, where people already do so much. I'm not sure what the answer is, but clearly more is needed.

Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight's Senior Living. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers. Email her at lois.bowers@mcknights.com.

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