It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Sam Kukich walked into her mother-in-law’s room at an assisted living facility in Newport News and found the woman sitting upright in bed with a vacant look on her face, sporting two black eyes and a large abrasion on her head.
Kukich, a 66-year-old Army veteran who lives in Poquoson, said she was not notified her mother-in-law had fallen, and no staff had seen it happen.
“I had to get her out of there,” Kukich said. “But I couldn’t forget all those faces of all those people I had come to see when I was visiting my mother-in-law.”
In September, Kukich launched her own nonprofit organization focused on lobbying for changes to Virginia law governing nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
The nonprofit, called Dignity for the Aged, will also send teams of volunteers to nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Hampton Roads to provide support and engage with residents — people who may otherwise not have anyone visiting them.
“We can’t wait for our government to do this,” Kukich said. “We can go in and start caring right now.”
Kukich has been in touch with Virginia legislators to push for a more-specific law governing staffing in assisted living facilities.
As it stands, the Virginia Department of Social Services requires “sufficient staffing” in assisted living facilities, but Kukich is advocating for a 6-to-1 staff-to-patient ratio.
“You’re setting them up for failure,” Kukich said of current staffing levels. “There’s not enough time in the day.”
A difficult history
Kukich and her husband moved her mother-in-law, Rose, to the Virginia Peninsula from Delaware in June 2015.
In those four years, Rose has been in five care facilities, four of which did not provide care up to Kukich’s standards: Rose lost weight, lost personal items, was not dressed in real clothes every day and sometimes was woken up at 4 a.m. for her daily shower.
“She was in four different homes before we figured out this is pretty standard,” Kukich said. “I was beside myself. I was worried every day. My biggest fear was that she was going to die there.”
Kukich reported her concerns to several people with each nursing home: the ombudsman, administrators, nurses and more, but felt the situations were never rectified.
She is now in a facility in Gloucester where Kukich feels she is getting proper care.
Williamsburg nursing homes
In June 2018, WYDaily published a two-part series detailing a history of litigation and sub-par inspections involving a specific Williamsburg-area nursing home, Envoy of Williamsburg.
The investigation also looked into state inspections into other area nursing homes, showing some other area facilities have some health and safety deficiencies.
Under state law, the health department requires the facilities to fix the deficiencies within 45 days, or face repercussions that sometimes involve withholding Medicare funding.
The most recent inspection reports on Medicare Compare, a federal website showing inspection information for nursing homes that receive federal funding, show Envoy of Williamsburg received 30 deficiency citations, nearly triple the state average and almost double the number from the previous year’s inspection.
Other Williamsburg area nursing homes also had varying citations and ratings for staffing, health inspections, fire safety inspections and quality of resident care, but were all ranked higher than Envoy.
Kukich is in the process of calling 31 nursing homes throughout the Virginia Peninsula region to learn more about each facility’s visitation policy.
Once the calls are all made and individual facility policies are known, Kukich will set up teams to visit various residents regularly and unannounced.
There is no set timeline yet for when those visits will start.
Kukich keeps track of her membership through a private Facebook group called Dignity for the Aged, which had about 330 members as of Thursday morning.
“Our goal isn’t to upset anyone, but to provide some face-to-face interaction for the people who feel forgotten,” Kukich said.