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Christmas came early for the senior living field on Sunday, when providers collectively found a big lump of coal in the industry stocking. But that stocking also contains an opportunity.

The Washington Post published a package of articles, titled “Memory Inc.,” about assisted living and memory care community residents who had eloped and died.

According to the Post’s research, more than 2,000 residents wandered away from or were “left unattended for hours outside” of senior living communities from 2018 to 2023, and 98 of them died. (Read this article to learn more about the response of industry advocates.)

It isn’t the first time the industry has been scrutinized by the national lay press, of course, and it won’t be the last.

In fact, the Post articles follow the November publication of a package of articles by the New York Times and KFF. That report, titled “Dying Broke,” scrutinized an industry pricing structure that adds fees on top of basic charges, to cover additional services such as help with activities of daily living, insulin injections and blood pressure checks. It also cited the growth of rate increases, the for-profit status of most providers, and the operating margins they see.

Other examples of somewhat recent unflattering coverage of the industry include a 2017 report by CNN that counted more than 16,000 cases of sexual abuse in assisted living communities and nursing homes since 2000 and, on a more local level, articles about the senior living industry in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

Although such attention can lead to efforts to try to increase state regulation of operators, in a recent interview I conducted with Nexus Insights and National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care founder Bob Kramer (not about these media investigations), Kramer said he believes that the government’s “desire to invest the money to set up a federal regulatory apparatus is still going to be lacking,” although “there will be a lot of noise” about it.

A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office certainly generated some “noise” when some federal lawmakers and consumer advocates said they would push for changes in assisted living because of the report’s findings. But the report’s to-do list primarily was for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and state Medicaid agencies related to state reporting of deficiencies in care and services provided to some assisted living residents.

Still, at a time when demographics mean that a larger number of older adults will be in the market for senior living in the coming years, operators can expect the scrutiny to continue.

As Kramer told me: “The reality is that there are good operators and not-so-good operators.” Even well-intentioned providers may find themselves challenged by staffing shortages, although many have limited move-ins in an effort to better align staffing and resident needs.

“The more the industry can articulate and, in a sense, hold itself accountable for higher standards of care, the better off the industry will be, because we don’t want to go the direction of skilled nursing,” Kramer said as I interviewed him on the occasion of McKnight’s Senior Living’s 20th anniversary. (If you haven’t seen the cartoon of him on the first-ever cover of our print magazine in 2003, you can see it here.)

And therein lies the opportunity.

Possible solutions are suggested in the Post coverage, among them training, increased vigilance and more accurate risk assessments. Industry advocates also point to their efforts to attain and maintain quality among providers.

“Our association has participated in multiple efforts to build sector consensus on assisted living quality measures and other topics,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said Sunday in response to the Post’s coverage.

For instance, LeadingAge, Argentum, the National Center for Assisted Living and the American Seniors Housing Association in June announced that they had joined with the National Association for Regulatory Administration to develop guidance for the industry and resources for operators, regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders. Infection prevention and control was the initial focus of the effort, called the Quality in Assisted Living Collaborative. The work “will help the sector collaboratively address the most urgent issues,” Sloan predicted at the time.

On top of that effort, NCAL offers its National Quality Award program, and Argentum offers several certificate and certification programs, just to name a few quality-focused initiatives. And providers can pursue efforts outside of those offered by industry membership associations, such as assisted living accreditation and memory care certification through The Joint Commission.

Keep it up. The Post is. The media outlet promises to continue to report on the assisted living industry and is soliciting information from readers about their “experiences with elder care, assisted living and dementia care.”

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here.

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