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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

The future of elder care?

It’s not much to look at: a squat, blond-brick building on a narrow Hyde Park street. But, until recently, Park Place was a jewel – the kind of nursing home to which staff would gladly send their own parents.

It wasn’t fancy, but it was small and homey, owned and run by the Sheehan family, which had eight nursing homes around the state. Longtime staffers knew their patients, most of modest means. Administrators listened.

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“My mother can’t speak for herself,” said Polly Walker, whose mother Cecile, 90, has Alzheimer’s. “She needs total care, and individual attention, and they’ve been wonderful.”

But in December 2012, the Sheehans sold Park Place and three other nursing homes to a California-based real estate investment trust, which in turn leased the properties to a recently formed Seattle operator called Videll Healthcare LLC.

Staff and families say that once Videll began running it, the 53-bed Park Place went downhill quickly. Their complaints are backed up by a stack of federal survey reports.

Because Videll failed to pay many bills for months, essential services were interrupted: Trash piled up behind the building at one point; the phones went down for a couple of days; food deliveries stopped, and the chef had to dip into emergency stores. The pest control and oxygen equipment people stayed away, too. The administrator ran through the facility’s petty cash, and began using his own money to buy supplies, including milk. Because the laundry company had not been paid, the washers and dryers weren’t maintained.

A medical director — whose salary hadn’t been paid for months — told an inspector he was concerned that the facility “was in danger of not providing essential services to its residents, such as food, heating and nursing supplies.” He resigned.

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So have several others. Those who remained set about making sure the residents didn’t know the difference, straining to provide them with the same quality of care they were used to. But some things were hard to miss. There was no money for a regular entertainer, bingo, or day trips. There was no holiday décor: Decorations were locked in a rented storage bin because Videll hadn’t paid the bill.

“I can’t figure out why they’re in the nursing home business,” said Walker, who, like other relatives, has been fretting for months over the changes at Park Place.

“I’m just so worried the staff is so demoralized, and more people will be leaving,” said Karen Sykes, whose 87-year-old father has lived at Park Place for eight years.

In October, the Department of Public Health froze new admissions to Park Place. It is the only nursing home in Massachusetts prohibited from taking new patients. Documents show that the state has imposed about $200,000 in fines so far.

Behold the grim future of elder care in America, if we don’t watch it. Our population is aging. And the health care industry is seeing massive consolidation, with big corporations gobbling up facilities, and smaller ones like Videll controlling homes thousands of miles away that were once community stalwarts.

That’s not us, say officials at Videll. CEO Steve LaForte says bills piled up because the Veterans Administration took months to reimburse the new owners for treating several patients, leaving the facility $100,000 in the hole. But you have to wonder how that sum could be such a crippling setback for a company with eight facilities around the country.

When a new company takes over a nursing home, “there is always some upheaval . . . but we are committed to a high quality of care,” LaForte said in a phone interview Friday. “This is too important for us not to be 110 percent committed.”

I’d love to take him at his word. But here’s something that gives me pause. Just after we spoke, I got word that bosses had been in touch with staff at Park Place. Not to ask them about morale, or how they could do things better. No, it was to warn workers not to talk to reporters like me.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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