State investigators are blaming the operators of an assisted-living complex in Apple Valley for the death of an elderly resident who choked on his waffle breakfast soon after the facility adopted a new dining procedure with less supervision.
Ecumen Seasons of Apple Valley failed to properly train and inform staff members about the resident’s dietary needs, according to a state Health Department report released Wednesday. His death on Dec. 14 came soon after his second choking incident in less than two months.
The center’s corporate parent, Ecumen of Shoreview, has notified state officials that it is challenging the findings.
“We did everything we could do in this tragic situation. It was a tragic accident and not neglect,” Ecumen spokesman Eric Schubert said. “Our team members are extremely saddened, and our deepest sympathies go out to our resident’s loved ones.”
Relatives identified the resident as Richard F. Keller, 87. He had lived in Rosemount with his wife of 60 years and worked all of his adult life in quality control for a Pepsi bottler before entering the memory-care facility in October.
“We were not aware of the new dining change prior to them changing it,” said one of his five children, Mary Kehoe, of Rosemount. “There was no one there with any CPR training, just the food server there in the dining room. They did not have anybody medically trained.”
“The aides and the people directly in contact with my dad were very apologetic,” Kehoe said. “The administration was all about PR.”
According to the state investigation:
About two weeks after his admission, Keller choked while eating breakfast and briefly became unresponsive. The Heimlich maneuver was performed, dislodging the food, and Keller did not require hospitalization. Subsequently, staff members were directed to give him one food item at a time, cut his food into small pieces and provide extra liquids with meals. Family members also warned that Keller was a fast eater who needed to be watched while he ate.
In early December, the center went to a “Rise and Dine” breakfast schedule, allowing residents to eat when they rose; direct monitoring of the dining room was left to the cook/server, while care staffers moved in and out to tend to other residents.
On Dec. 14, Keller was served waffles cut into small pieces, but he began choking and lost consciousness. The cook/server summoned direct-care staff, who applied the Heimlich maneuver.
Emergency personnel then arrived and attempted to revive Keller and clear “copious amounts of food.” An airway was cut in Keller’s neck, and he was taken to a hospital. He died that day from asphyxia caused by the food blockage, according to the death certificate.
The cook/server said she had no instruction that Keller was a fast eater who needed close monitoring. Direct-care staff members, however, told investigators that they knew of Keller’s specific needs.
Schubert, whose company operates 70 facilities for seniors in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Nebraska and Idaho, said “Rise and Dine” has been halted temporarily at Seasons of Apple Valley “while we work through the appeal” but is still in place at other Ecumen facilities.
“We believe it’s humane for people to eat when they want to eat,” he said. “That’s what we do at Ecumen.”