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Seniors Enduring 'Harassment' at Assisted Living Facility, Caregivers Say

By Leslie Albrecht | September 16, 2014 8:48am
 Seniors at Prospect Park Residence are battling in court to maintain services at the assisted living facility, which is closing so the building can be converted into apartments.
Elderly Residents Fighting to Maintain Services at Assisted Living Facility
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PARK SLOPE — The operators of the Prospect Park Residence assisted living facility are defying a judge's orders and drastically cutting services, according to court documents and caregivers.

Seniors aren't being bathed regularly, the dining room is serving junk food, and a housekeeper is leading group activities, according to recent filings in a lawsuit against the facility.

The dismal conditions are an attempt to force residents out, said Jason Johnson, an attorney with Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto who represents several of the facility's elderly residents along with the Legal Aid Society.

"[Management is] withdrawing [services] on purpose, and intimidating and harassing these people to leave," Johnson said. "They're shuttering common rooms, cutting off air conditioning, and just in general making the facility not a really bearable place to live."

He added, "For a facility that advertises itself as a place where you age in place, it's sad and unfortunate to me that they're acting that way."

Prospect Park Residence announced abruptly in March that it was closing and that residents had 90 days to get out. The building, which overlooks Prospect Park, is being converted into apartments.

After residents sued the facility and the state Department of Health over the closure, a judge ordered the residence to remain open and maintain services until the legal fight is resolved. On Friday, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Wayne Saitta will hear arguments on whether the lawsuit should be tossed out or move forward.

If lawyers for the residents prevail, the Department of Health — which oversees the facility and approved its closure — will have to come up with a new closure plan that would make sure every last resident is cared for until they find new living arrangements at a similar facility.

About a dozen residents, including two Holocaust survivors and a 107-year-old woman, still live at the facility, which was home to 139 seniors in March. 

Caregivers for those that remain, many of whom have dementia, say their frail family members couldn't withstand a move, or they haven't been able to find new homes that meet their needs. Similar facilities are rare in New York City, families say.

In recent months residents have endured a lack of hot water, non-functioning elevators and air conditioners, and increasingly lax security, caregivers say. Perks that used to brighten residents' days, such as live music performances and movies, have vanished.

Common areas have been locked, artwork has been stripped from the walls and furniture has been removed, according to legal filings. To a person suffering from dementia, a chair or painting can serve as an important landmark, and the sudden changes have been disorienting and frightening for some residents, Johnson said.

A spokeswoman for Prospect Park Residence denied that services have been cut.

"[M]anagement and staff have taken extraordinary steps to ensure continuity of care is maintained and that residents continue to reside in a safe and secure environment," said Prospect Park Residence spokeswoman Deborah Fasser. 

She noted that inspectors from the state Department of Health visit the facility regularly and haven't found problems. But caregivers, their attorneys, and local elected officials accuse the Department of Health of being asleep at the switch.

City Councilman Brad Lander and State Assemblyman Jim Brennan issued a statement Monday condemning DOH for failing to protect residents.

"The [building] owner showed his true colors long ago," Lander said in the statement, "so it is sad but not surprising that he would treat other human beings with such contempt. However, the failure of the New York State Department of Health to live up to its legal responsibility to protect our neighbors is especially galling."

A DOH spokesman said he couldn't comment because of the ongoing lawsuit against his agency.

Family members of the residents suing the facility and DOH are hoping their case will shine a light on what they say is lax regulation for assisted living facilities.

For example, DOH has to approve a facility's closure, but it isn't allowed to tell the public it's considering a closure until after it's approved. The owners of Prospect Park Residence told DOH as early as August 2013 that they planned to shutter the facility and convert the building to condos, according to a letter to DOH obtained by DNAinfo.

Even after the owners submitted their closure plan to the state, they continued to market the facility and sign up new tenants, giving some lease agreements running through the end of 2014, according to court documents. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating the owners' actions; the probe is ongoing and a spokeswoman said she couldn't comment.

The families of Prospect Park Residence's say they want to see the facilities owners punished.

A woman whose 97-year-old father lives in the facility said she tells her dad, who has moderate dementia, that the halls are nearly empty because his former neighbors have either moved to sunny Florida or they're living in a different wing during renovations.

She said she's glad he's oblivious to the fact that he'll have to leave, because he's loved living at Prospect Park Residence.

The woman, who didn't want her name used because she worries about retribution by facility staff, said she treasures every minute with her dad and visits him three or four times a week. But for the past several months she's had to devote most of her time to finding him a new place to live.

"That's not the way we should be spending this last time with our parents," she said. "That's a crime you can't pay back for."