John O’Connor

As an Irishman, I know two safe bets can be made about our occasional family gatherings.

The first is that a lot of people will show up. We are, after all, a hearty clan. The second is that several guests may require close monitoring.

You see, some of my relatives like to drink. (Big surprise, right?) Most also have strongly held opinions on, well, just about everything. Mix this feisty herd with a few hours of cocktailing, and you can be sure there will be a few, ahem, incidents.

Lest I’m making these reunions sound dangerous, they are actually a lot of fun. One reason things don’t usually get too out of hand is an informal policing system we use to help diffuse things — or to at least separate the combatants — before the debates get too personal. Still, it’s always the outrageous attendees who are remembered and later talked about.

I was reminded of this reality while reading a story we ran Friday about four resident deaths in the New Orleans area (the number has since risen to seven). To be sure, what happened last week is absolutely tragic. But this development should bother you for another reason as well.

Most operators in Hurricane Ida’s path worked heroically to protect their residents. They put good emergency plans in place, and executed them before, during and after the storm. But it appears one operator did not. And seven people who in all likelihood should be alive are now dead.

Will the coming news coverage likely focus on the operators who did the right things? Or about the thousands of nursing home residents who rode out the storm safely? No way.

Instead, we are going to hear repeatedly about the one operator who moved residents from facilities he owned to a warehouse (how’s that for irony?). We’ll likely learn more about his checkered past as an operator. And there’s a good chance that criminal charges may be in his future. That’s bad for him. But it’s also bad for you.

You see, many people who learn about this story will not simply conclude that maybe a bad apple did something ill-advised. Rather, they are going to chalk this up as yet another example of how the nursing home industry is run by a bunch of heartless, incompetent crooks.

Is that assessment unfortunate? Yes. Is it unfair? Absolutely. But here’s the thing: To suggest this industry’s bad reputation precedes it would be an extreme understatement. Too many bad things connected to this sector have happened over the years, and too many people in the general public remember them.

So long as this field refuses to address its lousy reputation in meaningful ways, it will continue to be viewed as little more than a provider of, ahem, warehouses for the elderly. And the occasional, inevitable future tragedies involving this sector will only reinforce negative perceptions.

That is, unless there is a bulwark in place to act as a counterpoint. Which, like last week’s hurricane, appears to be nowhere in sight.

John O’Connor is Editorial Director for McKnight’s.