Residents at The Mather and Westminster Place ask for a louder voice in their communities

Source: Ned Schaub, Evanston RoundTable

Seeking more housing security and ongoing quality of life, a group of Evanston residents from The Mather and from Westminster Place, which residents refer to as “life-care homes,” have been organizing to support a bill that would give them a voice on the boards of those homes.

Among other provisions, Illinois House Bill 4180 would ensure that residents are represented by a resident on the board of directors of the life care home at which they live.

“This all started because a very assertive person here said she felt powerless to affect the circumstances of her life. She said she wanted to be able to die with dignity and respect,” said Don Scott, a resident of Westminster Place.

Scott, 82 and a longtime Evanston resident, said that comment, along with other things he had experienced and heard about, inspired him to bring the idea of a bill to the office of state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-17). The resulting bill has since gained six additional sponsors, including state Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-18).

“The people that work where we live are great – we’ve yet to meet a person we don’t like. On a human level, it’s great,” Scott said. “The problem is that we have no access to the board. We’re not trying to be adversarial. We want these places to be successful. … I know that it is very expensive to run these places, but these are nonprofits, not businesses.”

He explained that, as most life care home residents do, when he and his wife sold their home and bought into Westminster Place three years ago, they planned to be there for the rest of their lives. They pay a monthly service fee, which he said goes up each year, most recently by more than 5%, without input from residents.

In a statement, Gong-Gershowitz said that she is “committed to giving seniors in life care communities a stronger voice in the facilities in which they live” and that she is optimistic that the bill will be introduced in this session or the following one, which will begin in January.

Gabel said residents’ “perspectives should be central to any policy decisions that will directly affect their care and financial security, because focusing on their needs will raise the quality of care in facilities across Illinois.”

The bill, which is backed by the AARP and the National Continuing Care Residents Association, would amend the Illinois Life Care Facilities Act, which authorizes the Illinois Department of Public Health to regulate residency agreements that require an entrance fee and include personal, nursing or medical care. The amendment would ensure not only a board seat for residents, but also protection against retribution toward residents who ask questions or push back, and would require quarterly meetings with residents, including open discussions about actions that might affect their well-being, such as the financial stability of facilities. The Illinois Department of Health would ensure compliance and would fine facilities that don’t comply.

In response to a request for comment, David Murlette, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Senior Living at the Mather parent organization, said that Mather supports elements of the amendment that would ensure dialogue between residents and “those who oversee a community,” to “ensure that residents can provide input regarding key decisions that impact community life.

“We believe Mather’s current governance and management structure supports these goals, and that the current Mather approach and board composition works well. We have proactively been in communication with resident leadership on HB 4180,” Murlette said.

Presbyterian Homes, which operates Westminster Place, declined to comment.

Neil Quinn, 92, a retired trial lawyer who has lived at The Mather for eight years, said he has been involved in the work to secure a board seat for a representative resident for the last six years. He said that he has been concerned about the organization’s financial matters and how financial management of the organization might impact ongoing services and the distribution of his investment at The Mather to his family when he dies.

Quinn said that entrance fees at life-care homes can be $1 million or more, 90% of which is intended to be distributed to a person’s estate.

“We are in perilous times – in this country and internationally. We in The Mather want to make sure the money is there for our heirs when the time comes. In 2008, many of these places suffered tremendously and many went into bankruptcy,” Quinn said.

He is also concerned about his investment and surplus funds that he believes could be diverted to support other endeavors of The Mather’s parent organization, such as the development of a new high-end facility in Tysons, Virginia.

“The Mather Tysons is a good goal, but I’m not sure we couldn’t be using funds here for better operations or financial security,” Quinn said.

All those interviewed for this story referenced a study produced by the Mather parent organization’s own Institute on Aging, “Resident Expectations Regarding Transparency and Decision-Making in Life Plan Communities.”

The related survey, conducted in 2016 and 2017, included CEOs, executive directors or those who oversee communities similar to The Mather and Westminster Place from across the U.S. Of 279 respondents, representing 260 communities, 60% indicated that residents serve on their community or parent board. Of that 60%, 83% are voting members.

Regarding the advantages of providing greater transparency to residents, 91% said there was a “greater sense of trust in management,” 88% indicated an “enhanced relationship” between residents and management, and 83% indicated “increased resident satisfaction.”

Another resident at The Mather, who didn’t want to be named, said that a recent gathering at the facility about the issue had been standing-room-only with around 125 participants.

The resident said the primary question for many is why top management would be against it.

“We think it’s time. Let’s move forward with having a resident on board. It’s puzzling to us in many ways and we hope that this bill will eventually pass.” The resident said that a letter had been sent to Mary Leary, the president and CEO of the parent Mather organization, asking for an explanation.

While members of the resident group wait for the bill to make its way to the Illinois House floor, they plan to engage residents at other life-care homes, state representatives they hope will become bill co-sponsors and media from across the state in their efforts to secure passage of the bill.

“We want to make sure residents are heard on decisions, that any deliberative body should want to get as much information as it can before making decisions,” Quinn said. “We’ve got money in the game, so we’ve got more interest in this than anybody.”

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