WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Mary-Ellen Judson, 72, told her son, Keith, that when the time came to live the rest of her days in an assisted living facility, she wanted to live at Colonial Gardens Alzheimer's Special Care Center in West Columbia.
"She picked the place herself," Judson said. "I always involve mom and was honest with her about everything. We talked about that when it was time, she was going to have to find her a spot. So, I let her pick her own spot and that's where she picked. They weren't open for two months. It was brand new. We drove by and talked about as soon as it was opened we would go by. It was beautiful, it still is. That's not the issue."
Months after Keith's mother entered the Sunset Blvd. care center, they are looking for a new facility.
"The goal is to put a smile on her face and let her enjoy the rest of her life in [a] peaceful, comfortable environment," Judson said. "That's what we always talked about and that's what I promised to her."
Mary-Ellen lived a happy and healthy life until her Alzheimer's diagnosis about three months ago put life for the family on a rocky new path.
"She's not 100 percent," Judson explained. "She will never be 100 percent again. But she is not in better shape now than when I brought her there. She's in poorer condition."
Judson says in spite of his mother's battle with Alzheimer's, her health started on a downward spiral soon after she moved into the care center. "She is spending the majority of the day crying and wearing herself out," Judson said.
For Judson, he says problems started to add up almost immediately. He explained a roller-coaster of events that took place, including medication errors and a scabies outbreak. He said he reached his breaking point on Sept. 30.
"The big issue for me was when mom was able to go out the side door. [She] found herself walking around for an undetermined amount of time and then knocked on the front door," Judson said. "The front is Highway 378. Knocked on the front door and asked if I could come in."
It was not until Oct. 11 that DHEC investigated Keith's complaint. DHEC found the alarm to be working properly. As a result, no violations were cited.
It wasn't until after he really started to press for information that JEA Senior Living, based in Washington, told Keith if he was unhappy with the care that maybe he should think about leaving.
"I thought it was impolite and I found it offensive," Judson said. "It doesn't answer my question or my concern. All that does is ask me to please take my issues somewhere else. Go away and be someone else's problem."
There was fear that if they moved her again, her health might take another sharp turn, but Keith says he had no other choice. He moved his mother out of the facility at the beginning of November.
Keith and his mother may not be alone in their complaints.
A WIS investigation into Keith's story found that the facility was cited for nearly 30 violations since December 2016. DHEC confirmed it has been investigating a scabies outbreak since January 2017. There is also one lawsuit is pending against Colonial Gardens claiming negligence and wrongful death. Brad Banyas, an attorney based in Mount Pleasant, filed the suit in March 2017 on behalf of Kirsten Leslie and her family.
A 28-page report obtained by WIS gives insight into some of the violations.
Documents show DHEC conducted a series of complaint investigations on August 12, 2016, December 14, 2016, March 3, 2017 and May 2, 2017. There were several violations found in each of those investigations. DHEC notes it is considering an enforcement action against Colonial Gardens.
In the Dec.14 investigation, a resident walked out and went to a nearby tractor store. Documents say that the resident has dementia and that no safeguards were put in place to prevent the resident's wandering behavior.
DHEC also learned that the preventative maintenance checks were not conducted. The maintenance director was on vacation and no one was scheduled to conduct the preventative maintenance checks.
In the May 2 investigation, Colonial Gardens was cited for eight violations.
DHEC notes that an employee disciplinary form documented that an employee was terminated for verbal abuse on April 22, 2017. DHEC also found that at least two staff members are accused of abusing residents -- slapping, stomping their feet and slamming them into their beds if they did not comply with their requests. According to the DHEC comments, the facility did not submit an investigation of multiple incidents to the department. It also notes that the facility was notified that a staff member stole a resident's credit cards and used them from March to April, even opening an account at a department store.
DHEC told WIS that it was holding a meeting with the facility on Thursday, Nov. 9 to consider further enforcement actions. However, DHEC has not responded to our multiple attempts for comment during the last few days.
Judson says since his mother escaped, he still has no answer as to how she got out.
In our investigation, DHEC writes that "Thousands of South Carolinians reside in 479 community residential care facilities that have over 19,000 beds. Of those residents, a total of 85 elopements were reported in 2016, including 76 from community residential care facilities and nine from nursing homes. Fortunately, most residents are quickly located or return shortly after leaving."
Colonial Gardens responds to the inquiry
Colonial Gardens responded to our request for comment on Thursday, saying:
There are many resources folks can use to find the right nursing home and assisted care facility for their loved one. Here is a list of a few that can help: