WOODLAND PARK, N.J. – An alarm blared as Patricia Landers, who suffers from dementia, opened the door of a Florham Park assisted living center shortly before midnight and walked out, wearing her bathrobe. The facility did not call police for 39 minutes.
That lag time gave Landers a chance to get far away. After a four-hour search, police found her about three miles from the facility, in neighboring Madison. Family members said in an interview with NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey that she told them she had been frightened the entire time. They said she had bruises from falling.
The family filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Brookdale at Florham Park and its parent company, one of the largest operators of long-term senior living facilities in the nation, alleging the home didn’t provide the level of care it promised for residents with dementia.
The lawsuit comes amid a pandemic that has exposed weaknesses in the eldercare system, raising questions about staffing levels at long-term care facilities and complaints about inadequate communication with family members.
Brookdale Senior Living, based in Tennessee, has more than 800 long-term care facilities in 45 states, according to its website. A company spokeswoman wrote in an email that Brookdale does not comment on legal proceedings and doesn't discuss individual residents.
Patricia, the family said, managed to walk away from the Florham Park facility four times over several months. And the home allegedly told relatives that she tested negative for COVID-19 last month — when in fact the test came back positive, according to the family.
“I thought my mother was going to die,” said Judy Aiello of West Orange, one of Patricia’s four daughters.
Family members said that the home had promised them 24-hour security and a staff trained to deal with residents who have dementia. The family said it provided neither. And they said they routinely called the home to ask about their mother but their messages were not returned.
Patricia, 83, is now living in another facility after recovering from pneumonia and having another test for the virus, which was negative, her family said. Several family members agreed to discuss her care this week, including a daughter, Amy, and her husband Nils Lofgren, a musician and songwriter who has performed with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Lofgren, who lives in Arizona, said the pandemic hit home when his mother-in-law went missing from the assisted living facility last month.
“Our anxieties, fears and worries went sky high,” he said. "We thought Pat was in a safe place because that is what they promised.”
'Understaffed' and 'undertrained'
Brookdale reported to the state a total of 310 COVID-19 cases and 58 deaths in 10 facilities in New Jersey as of May 13. Its Florham Park campus has had 10 cases, a relatively low number, and no deaths. There have been almost 27,000 COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities in the state and more than 5,000 fatalities.
"I will say that we work hard to maintain an open and constructive dialogue with families about their loved one and the best way that we can work together to help each resident live their best life in their community," Brookdale's spokeswoman, Heather Hunter, wrote.
Andrew Miltenberg and other attorneys representing Patricia’s family said in court papers that the Florham Park facility was "consistently understaffed, and the staff that was there, was undertrained and either unwilling or incapable of providing the requisite level of care promised by Brookdale and required by Ms. Landers’ conditions.”
A federal class-action suit settled last year alleged staffing problems at the company's Florida facilities, saying they were the result of the parent company’s policies. The suit said Brookdale misled families by telling them staffing was based on assessments of its residents. Instead, the suit charged, it was set by the corporation and based on profit, leaving homes unable to meet residents’ needs.
The company settled another federal lawsuit after a Michigan woman with dementia froze to death in 2011 when a fire door closed behind her, locking her out of the building, according to court filings. South Carolina court records show a pending lawsuit against the company related to another woman with dementia who allegedly walked out of a facility in 2016 and was killed by an alligator.
'She was scared'
Patricia Landers raised four daughters as a single mother in West Orange, working as an executive secretary for 27 years. She taught sewing classes, and she helped people learn to read and write English at the local library. She volunteered at a local hospital.
She recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her family said, but chemotherapy left her with lung problems. She had a heart murmur and osteoporosis. Her family moved her into Brookdale in January, lured by the promise that it was equipped to take care of residents with dementia.
The family said in court papers that Patricia didn’t get medicines and treatments she needed. She complained of being “pushed up against the walls” by staff members, the lawsuit said, and relatives said they noticed bruises during visits. The receptionist refused to put them through to staff and took messages that were never returned, the documents said.
“My mother kept telling us she was scared and the girls were mean,” Amy Aiello Lofgren said.
A Brookdale employee called the family about the alleged abuse and urged them to file a complaint, the lawsuit said.
“The employee was aware of the staff’s abusive and improper behavior with residents, yet could not control them, and was not getting help from Brookdale management in fixing the situation,” the suit said.
Patricia walked out of the home three times between Feb. 18 and April 5, according to the suit. Police found her the last time after a “concerned citizen” reported a woman walking down the road in a bathrobe.
After that incident, she was moved to a “memory care” section of the home, an area that was supposed to be more secure for people with dementia. Three days later, on April 8, she escaped for a fourth time.
A police report said she tried to get out at first by using a chair to smash a glass window. A staff member escorted her back to her room and went to another area to call the family, the report said.The lawsuit said Judy Aiello spoke to her mother by phone and calmed her down before the staff "left her unsupervised."
Minutes later, Patricia opened an exit door and triggered an alarm. The door does not immediately open, according to police.
“One must hold the push bar in for an extended period of time which will activate a very loud audible alarm,” the report said, adding the door can be opened after “several seconds of the alarm sounding.”
The alarm went off at 11:58 p.m. Police said they were called at 12:37 a.m. Then the Morris County Sheriff’s K9 unit arrived and Judy Aiello said family members joined the search.
Patricia was found in Madison, the police report said. Court documents said she was wearing her bathrobe and it was 4 a.m.
The family agreed to move her back to Brookdale temporarily while they looked for a new home. The suit said Brookdale promised Patricia would have 24-hour care by "skilled nurses" from an outside agency trained in dealing with dementia. Instead, the suit said, they were aides who lacked such training.
Days later the agency told the family the aides were “now unavailable,” according to the suit. Brookdale called one day later with the news, the family said.
Meanwhile, Patricia was given a COVID-19 test at the insistence of her family, though at the time she didn’t have symptoms. The family said staff members told them on April 16 that the test was negative.
Hours later, the home called to say it didn’t have an aide to watch Patricia that night but was looking for one, the family said. Judy Aiello said she received another call four minutes later from a doctor saying her mother needed to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. She said she wasn’t given an explanation.
The hospital staff stunned the family by telling them that the COVID-19 test from days before, which they had been told was negative, showed Patricia had contracted the virus. The hospital later told the family that Patricia had developed pneumonia.
“I thought there was no way my mother’s going to make it through this,” Judy Aiello said.
Two weeks later, Patricia had recovered, and another COVID-19 test came back negative. Now, she's staying at a CareOne facility in Livingston where the family said she’s been happy, and asking them to bring her books to read by her favorite author, Harlan Coben, a writer of mystery thrillers.
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