Two years ago, Lisa Papp-Richards tried to install a tiny camera on a cabinet in the room of a Bemidji nursing home where her 77-year-old mother lived. She had noticed a sudden decline in her mother’s health and was concerned.
But facility staff seized the device soon after they found it.
Outraged, the family called the Bemidji police. Later, a facility supervisor asked Papp-Richards to sign a statement saying that “photographic, video and/or audio monitoring” was not permitted, she said.
“What are they hiding?” Papp-Richards asked. “These are vulnerable people, and we should be able to know what’s happening to them.”
Now, after years of deliberation, lawmakers are moving to protect the rights of family members to use cameras to monitor the care of their loved ones.
A Senate committee Wednesday approved a bill that would, for the first time, explicitly give people the right to use electronic monitoring devices in nursing homes and other senior care facilities, provided they obtain consent from residents being monitored. Elder care advocates hope that the changes will empower more people to use the technology and that it could serve as a deterrent to maltreatment at a time when allegations of abuse against vulnerable adults are on the rise.
In recent years, tiny cameras — small enough to fit inside a potted plant or stuffed doll — have become important tools for families who suspect maltreatment of their loved ones or who simply want to monitor their care. Yet Minnesota law is silent on whether people actually have the right to install such equipment in residents’ rooms. This omission has long sowed confusion and conflicts between vulnerable seniors and the facilities that house them.
Allegations of maltreatment in senior homes are notoriously difficult to prove, and cameras are considered one of the few ways that families can corroborate claims by older relatives.
“We ask ourselves daily, how many of the deaths and maltreatment incidents could have been avoided if a camera had been in use?” asked Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, in testimony at Wednesday’s hearing.
Connie Billmeier of Champlin is among those who support the legislation. Last month, she received the results of a state Health Department investigation that concluded that her younger brother with dementia died last fall after being severely beaten at an assisted-living facility, Chappy’s Golden Shores, in northern Minnesota. According to the report, her brother died from brain injuries after he was repeatedly punched in the face by one staff member while another staff member held him down.
The state has since suspended the facility’s license, yet Billmeier wonders if the presence of cameras might have prevented her brother’s death. “This [legislation] could absolutely save lives,” she said. “The employee who knows the camera is there is going to make a better choice before doing something stupid or violent.”
For many families, cameras provide vital information on the health of their loved ones, which can be shared with facility staff to improve care. Recognizing that facility staff cannot monitor a person 24 hours a day, the footage can also be used to detect the causes of unexpected injuries or declines in a person’s health.
Last summer, for instance, Patty Sagert of Roseville installed three small cameras in her 81-year-old father’s room at his assisted-living facility, after she noticed he was walking with a pronounced limp and showed weakness on his right side. Because he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, Sagert’s father was unable to describe the cause of his declining health.
Within days after installing the cameras, Sagert discovered that her father was wandering from his bed late at night and was not getting adequate sleep, which increased his confusion and risk for falls. After viewing the footage, the facility increased its safety checks of Sagert’s father during the night.
“My father would never be able to say, ‘I’m in pain and this is why,’ so the cameras were absolutely crucial,” Sagert said. “They gave us peace of mind.”
Yet the use of electronic monitoring devices in senior homes has long been a source of controversy. In interviews, families have described being threatened with eviction and other acts of retaliation for trying to install the cameras; while others have had their cameras moved, damaged or even stolen. To avoid retaliation, some families have resorted to hiding their cameras from staff.
The proposed legislation, authored by Sen. Karin Housley, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee, strives to balance privacy rights with the public’s desire to prevent maltreatment. Under the bill, cameras would only be allowed with the informed consent of all the residents in the room (or a legal representative if the resident is not competent to give consent). In addition, the facility must be notified of the camera, except in cases where the resident or the resident’s representative “reasonably fears retaliation by the facility,” the bill states.
The bill mirrors language that has been used in a half-dozen other states that explicitly permit electronic monitoring in senior homes. Even so, the proposal is likely to stir heated debate: Some seniors and their advocates have already objected to any rule requiring that facilities be notified of cameras, out of fear that staff might retaliate.
“The issues should seem simple, but the complexity lies in proper balancing of safety, privacy and autonomy concerns of the senior,” said Sean Burke, public policy director at the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, which facilitated a working group last year that developed the framework for the bill.