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Mary Brady’s Nursing Home Story: It’s Personal

Outcomes | 

Tuesday’s Dispatch featured the New York Times devastating investigative report on corruption, malfeasance and failed government oversight in nursing homes. That story hits very close to home.

Mary Brady was the type of community leader that gives backbone to small towns. She was a teacher, parent, business owner, booster and philanthropist. For Mary, the town was Cascade, Iowa, 25 miles southwest of Dubuque, where she ran an independent insurance agency, raised three successful children, served on boards, raised money for local causes, cheered the cross-country team and regularly had “coffee with the ladies.”

Mary Brady was also my mother-in-law. She and my wife Terri had an unbreakable bond. Mary was matron-of-honor at our wedding. Terri was the best caregiver any parent could want.

As Alzheimer’s ravaged Mary’s brain, destroyed her keen wit and stole her independence, she moved from home-based care to independent living to assisted living to memory care. Against her will, we moved Mary to facilities in Chicago near us. There were good days and bad.

Her upscale Chicagoland nursing home sold to a for-profit company that emphasized rehabilitation over residential care. Why not? That’s where the money is. They put a coffee bar in the lobby and cut nursing staff. 

We decided Mary needed a new care facility and chose Bethany Home in Dubuque. Bethany is an exceptional nursing home with caring staff and a distinct Iowa vibe — perfect for Mary. By this time, she was wheelchair-bound, passive, required feeding assistance, had a chipped tooth and bruises from two falls. 

Imagine our surprise as Mary became more alert and talkative during the four-hour drive to Dubuque. By that evening, she was feeding herself. Within days, she was walking again. Best of all, Mary’s intoxicating laugh and smile returned. She was happy and so were we.

At the Chicago nursing home, Mary repeatedly said “awful, awful, awful.” We had no idea what she was meant and even joked about the phrase. It now haunts us. Mary never said those words at Bethany, where she always received warm, humane and compassionate care.

“Awful, awful, awful” describes the warehousing of millions of seniors in facilities that overmedicate, neglect and abuse residents. It’s a monumental American tragedy.

Paraphrasing Hubert Humphrey, “society’s ultimate moral test is the way it treats those in the twilight and shadows of life, the elderly, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” With the exception of stellar facilities like Bethany, America’s nursing homes don’t even come close to Humphrey’s standard of human decency.

Read all dispatches from Dave Johnson here.

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