PD Editorial: A shocking story of senior citizens abandoned

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We marveled at the displays of heroism during October’s wildfires — first responders rushing in as their own homes burned, ordinary people braving a hellish inferno time and again to make sure their neighbors got away safely.

Their courage still inspires almost a year later.

What a shocking contrast to read a state investigative report that lays out in grim detail a story alleging that elderly people were abandoned by their caregivers at Varenna and Villa Capri, senior care facilities in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood.

The state Department of Social Services is seeking to revoke the licenses of their shared owner, Oakmont Senior Living, and bar two top administrators from ever working again in assisted-living facilities licensed by the state.

It would be fitting punishment if the charges are sustained.

Many of the residents at Varenna and Villa Capri needed assistance to get around, according to the report issued Thursday. Some suffered dementia, one was in hospice care.

And dozens were left behind on the first night of the Tubbs fire when their caregivers fled. State investigators concluded that more than 20 people left behind at Villa Capri would have died except for valiant efforts by family members and first responders.

“These residents would have perished when the facility burned to the ground during the fire,” the report says.

At nearby Varenna, a multi-building complex that didn’t burn, three residents woke up on the morning of Oct. 9 to discover that much of their neighborhood had gone up in smoke overnight. They had been left behind in the evacuation.

The caregivers and maintenance workers on duty at Varenna and Villa Capri hadn’t been trained for emergencies or participated in evacuation drills, the report says. Neither had an off-duty Varenna caregiver who came in to help.

The power was out, but staff members didn’t know where to find flashlights or batteries — or the keys to buses parked outside. Two staff members at Villa Capri had physical limitations that prevented them from performing standard caregiver duties, or even lifting more than 10 pounds.

Villa Capri staff members took some residents when they left but didn’t call 911 or notify anyone when they reached evacuation centers. Investigators said the administrator, Debora Smith, spoke twice by phone to a staff member and started driving toward Villa Capri but returned home before heading to an evacuation center hours later.

Nathan Condie, the administrator at Varenna, arrived around 12:30 a.m. and subsequently halted an evacuation because “he didn’t want to cause issues or make trouble for (Oakmont Senior Living),” the report says. He left around 3:30 a.m., taking a few residents in his car, without telling staff members where to find the keys to a bus in the parking lot. Other staff members left after Condie was gone, leaving as many as 70 residents behind. Emergency crews kicked down doors in a hunt for people who hadn’t been evacuated.

In the aftermath, investigators say Oakmont Senior Living posted a “false and misleading” account of the evacuations online, and employees of the company falsely claimed that they found no residents remaining when they searched Varenna the morning after the fire.

Oakmont Senior Living called the allegations unfounded in a written statement, and the company has 15 days to appeal. Whatever the final outcome, we tip our cap to the family members and first responders who didn’t forget the residents of Villa Capri and Varenna.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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