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2020 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Unprotected

Broken Promises in Georgia's Senior Care Industry

About the Project

Investigative reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent almost a year digging into the records of Georgia’s assisted living communities and personal care homes.

Georgia experienced a boom in the senior care industry after lawmakers authorized assisted living facilities in 2011. By 2017, it appeared that the state’s seniors had their choice of quality facilities, many with resort-like amenities. No alarms were sounding about what went on inside the homes.

But as the AJC started looking into dodgy bond deals for some facilities, there were signs of trouble with the industry. The AJC also discovered that Georgia provided scant information about the homes, leaving families with little to rely on except slick marketing and “senior advisers” paid by the homes. The AJC began to compile information that convinced them a major investigation was warranted. The reporters dug in full-time.

Through complex investigative analyses, they identified hundreds of cases of suffering due to neglect and abuse. One caregiver used a lit cigarette to burn the face of a woman with dementia. After caregivers at another home tried to hide that a woman had fallen, she spent days writhing in pain with an untreated broken hip that contributed to her death. Some elderly residents were left in their own waste for hours because no one came when they pressed call buttons for help.


At least 20 people died because of poor care from 2015 through 2018.

No one in Georgia, not even regulators, police or lawmakers, knew the scope of the harm until the AJC published its series.

The reporters also revealed how the business environment was driving breakdowns, while the state lacked the capacity or will to ensure that seniors receive proper care and dignity in their final years.
With seniors left unprotected, the newspaper stepped up to provide information that the state would not. The AJC created a searchable database on AJC.com that flags serious violations at all Georgia assisted living communities and large personal care homes. A special digital section was created for all the content including the database and the AJC held a Community Town Hall after the series launched.

No other news organization has created a system for identifying serious violations in hundreds of facilities and flagging homes with the worst records. The AJC created one because the state had left the public in the dark about widespread dangers.

The AJC’s reporting quantified harm done to residents. In more than 100 cases, supposedly secure homes allowed residents with dementia to wander away. The AJC found nearly 150 instances of medication errors such as giving residents the wrong medicine, expired medicine or no medicine at all. Because Georgia doesn’t define neglect by senior care homes, the AJC used the federal definition to identify and classify violations for all of the nearly 400 homes. This allowed the AJC to document more than 600 cases of neglect, and another 90 where the elderly suffered physical, sexual or verbal abuse by caregivers.