Dik, Brian and Vera’s families paid top dollar for them to live at a “lovely” nursing home, but damning reports from the aged care regulator and allegations by a group of trainee nurses tell another story.
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES
It was two days before Christmas last year when Lea Hammond received a call from her father’s nursing home in Perth saying an ambulance was taking him to hospital. There was a heatwave that day, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius.
“[The staff member said] dad had been taken to hospital due to sunburn. They told me they couldn’t find him, they didn’t know where he was,” Lea said.
The family thought they were doing the best for their father when they moved him to Regis Nedlands, a luxury nursing home where residents can pay up to $1.4 million in accommodation deposits.
Regis promised “hotel-style offerings” with premium services, including a private cinema, alcohol with meals, a hairdressing salon and a day spa, as well as “the best possible care.”
When Lea arrived at the hospital with her mother, they were horrified to find Brian Hunter dehydrated, delirious and suffering serious blisters and burns.
“He was slumped over in the bed, and his back was exposed. I could see his back was really terribly burnt, his whole back was burned. And he was not speaking to us. He was semi in and out of consciousness,” Lea said, speaking about it for the first time to 7.30.
They later discovered that the 86-year-old — a double amputee who had lost both of his legs due to diabetes — had been left on the nursing home’s rooftop terrace for two hours.
When police later became involved they told Lea they had seen the CCTV footage.
They said it showed Lea’s father sitting in a wheelchair by the doors when, at 1:10pm, a Regis staff member entered the access code on the keypad to open the doors and let him propel himself on to the roof terrace.
A later incident report by Regis said the CCTV footage later showed Brian “self-propelling his wheelchair into and out of the shade/sun” for an hour and that he later “removed his hat and shirt”.
Staff are supposed to do hourly checks on residents but none of the carers noticed Brian was missing.
He was rescued at 3:05pm when another resident’s visitor saw him on the roof, unconscious according to police, and brought him inside.
He was given oxygen before going in an ambulance to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.
“It’s disgusting that anyone would open a door on a 40-degree day and let a man outside with no water,” Lea said.
“No-one knows where he is for two hours. I mean, if that carer put him outside, shouldn’t she have reported that he’d gone outside? Why didn’t they know where he was for two hours?”
Regis is one of Australia’s biggest publicly listed aged care providers, with 65 nursing homes last year receiving a total of $471 million in government subsidies.
Its two co-founders are worth more than $1 billion and its CEO is on the federal government’s Aged Care Advisory Group.
Regis’s report about the incident states that it was Brian who entered the access code to open the door, not the carer.
According to the report, “Brian took himself to the fourth floor and fell asleep in the sun”.
Lea disputes that version of events, based on conversations she’s had with police. She accuses Regis of shifting blame to her father.
“I felt quite angry about it that they would say something like that,” she said.
“I’ve visited so many times at Regis, and he really found it quite difficult to remember the key code number.
“Every time I went there, I would have to put the code in for him.”
The ABC asked Regis to clarify who entered the access code to enter the terrace and the location of emergency call bells in the outdoor area, but the company did not respond directly to those questions.
Lea said her father’s cognition was failing due to a fall he had at Regis in November last year which left him with a black eye and a bleed on the brain.
According to Lea, Regis had not initially sent Brian to hospital after that fall, but she insisted he go. A brain scan was scheduled for January to check on the injuries from the fall, but he was already in hospital due to the burn.
After the burns, Brian lay in his bed at the hospital for four weeks, too weak to stay awake long enough to eat. Lea said no-one from Regis Nedlands called her while her father was in hospital.
“At the end of his life, Dad barely spoke. He wasn’t speaking at all. They had to feed-tube him because he couldn’t swallow. And he barely recognised us,” she said.
“He was just a great father, wonderful grandfather, fantastic husband. This is just so distressing to see him being treated in that manner.
“I think he was just totally neglected, it’s awful.”
She wrote to Regis CEO Linda Mellors, who wrote back, apologising “for your experience, and that we did not meet expected care standards”, and saying there would be an internal investigation to “understand how these incidents occurred and what can be put in place to prevent them from happening again”.
The CEO’s letter arrived on January 20 — the same day Brian died.
The coroner and police from Western Australia’s Major Crime Squad began investigations into his death, but a week later told Brian’s family they had found “no evidence of criminality”.
“I was really shocked,” Lea said.
“To me this is criminal abuse.
“If this had happened in a childcare facility, or even [if] I’d been looking after my father at home and taken him to the hospital, I’m sure that I would have been charged with abuse — but there’s no charges laid against anyone. No-one’s accountable for what’s happened to him.”
The day after Brian was admitted, the hospital reported Regis to the federal government’s regulator, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.
However, the office was on a Christmas break and no-one visited Regis Nedlands until January 11, which was three weeks later.
“I was quite shocked to think that, that no-one would actually be going in there to investigate what had happened straight away,” Lea said.
The Commission said there were some staff rostered on duty over the holiday period “to respond to urgent matters”, but the office reopened fully on January 4.
Regis Nedlands had already been sanctioned in November 2019 for putting the health and safety of residents at “serious risk”.
But three months later, in February last year, the Commission gave Regis Nedlands a 100 per cent score for passing all safety and quality standards.
When Regis sent its report about Brian Hunter to the Commission, the company said it would “like to apologise for any distress that this concern may have caused Mr Hunter or his family”.
It said the carer on duty had failed to record Mr Hunter’s absence and “this has been identified as an area of improvement”.
For Lea and her father, Brian, it was too late.
“I was told that [Regis was] going to be taking new measures to ensure that this was never going to happen again — policies were put in, people were being trained, water was being left out for people and signage was put up about the sun. And I thought, ‘Well, you know what, that doesn’t really help me,'” Lea said.
In the days before Brian’s death, six nursing students from Edith Cowan University were sent to Regis Nedlands for their first clinical placement.
Between January 11 and 13, the students say they witnessed abuse, widespread neglect, rough handling and sexually inappropriate behaviour at the luxury nursing home.
Disturbed by what they saw, they went to their clinical adviser, who helped them compile a report detailing what they’d seen, which was sent to Regis, which immediately referred it to WA Police.
According to the report, when one of the trainee nurses told a Regis staff member that their care practices were wrong, the carer allegedly told her:
Dik Lee’s family paid an accommodation deposit of $500,000 when he moved into Regis Nedlands in March last year.
“The first impression was, ‘Oh, wow, it’s like a five-star hotel,'” Dik’s daughter Lisa Chan said.
“Every Friday, they would have Happy Hour between 2 and 3 pm, and that’s the time Mum and Dad and myself really enjoyed.
“The residents all sat around the table and we had wine, soft drinks and nibbles, and then sometimes the residents would be invited to dance on the floor.”
But Lisa started to sense the nursing home was understaffed.
“I would ask the carers to change my dad’s incontinence pads, and he would be soaking wet and the pad would be soaking wet and the wheelchair seat all wet, but still they didn’t come because they were short of staff,” she said.
The day after the student nurses sent their report, Regis rang Lisa to say her 94-year-old father was among those allegedly abused.
“I couldn’t believe that it happened, but the manager did not tell me in detail,” she said.
The ABC has seen the student report revealing how Dik, who has dementia and diabetes and is confined to a wheelchair, was allegedly treated by two carers.
On the evening of January 12, one of the students wrote that she went to assist another carer “and found Mr Lee (who is always in a wheelchair) on the floor near the entrance of his room completely unclothed and sitting in his faeces with [a carer] standing over him. I asked [the carer], did he fall? and [the carer] replied with ‘no'”.
The trainee nurse left the room to get some towels and according to the report, when she returned she saw “Mr Lee being dragged around the corner and into the bathroom” by the same carer, who she said “looked a little shocked to see me”.
When another Regis staff member came to help, the two carers “placed their foot (sic) down on to Mr Lee’s bare toes and grabbed him by the arms and yanked him up, using them standing on his toes as a lever to help get him up”.
“I was extremely appalled at this because Mr Lee seemed to be in pain.”
Lisa said her “heart broke” when she heard how her father was treated.
“It was inhumane. They were treating my dad like an animal to be slaughtered,” she said.
“I’m very thankful to the students for reporting what they saw and I’m so happy that they reported to the police otherwise, all this would be undercover — no-one knew what was going on.”
In a statement to the ABC, Regis said it had commissioned an independent investigator regarding the claims but that “there is no evidence beyond the allegation document that a resident was dragged or had their toes stood on”.
A few days after the alleged abuse, Dik became ill with a fever and was confined to bed.
Despite his daughter insisting something was seriously wrong, Lisa said the GPs assigned to look after Regis residents assured the family he just needed rest and antibiotics.
“I have never seen him looking so bad, and so painful on his face, but he couldn’t express himself. He couldn’t tell me what actually happened,” Lisa said.
Eventually he was rushed to hospital, where the doctor said her father was in a coma, had liver failure and had just 24 hours to live.
Dik died the next day.
“He died 12 hours after, and that was very, very devastating … that we didn’t even prepare for it. A few days before his death, he looked so good.”
He died the day after Brian Hunter.
There is an ongoing coronial inquiry into Dik Lee’s death, but as with Brian’s death the WA Police have said there is “no evidence of criminality”.
“Just imagine if a child is being abused at school — that teacher would be held accountable for the abuse of the child … but my dad actually died due to the abuse, so why can’t it be a criminal investigation?” Lisa said.
Lisa said the police told her that the student nurse couldn’t remember what had happened with her father, which confused the family.
“I do believe in the student’s account of what actually happened because it was so detailed, describing what happened to my dad, but the police told me I shouldn’t believe in that statement,” she said.
WA Police said they could not respond to the ABC’s inquiries because of the ongoing coronial investigation.
In a statement, Regis said it had mandatorily reported the students’ allegations to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission and WA Police and “stood down, pending an investigation, those staff named or implicated in the allegations document”.
“Regis acknowledges and sincerely regrets that some residents received care and services below our expected standards.”
Dean of Nursing at ECU, Professor Di Twigg, said she was proud of the students for taking action: “They’ve done the right thing and for someone on their first clinical experience, which often can be quite overwhelming … they’ve done very well.”
Ninety-year-old Vera Ward is another resident with dementia who was allegedly abused.
Her daughter, Kathrine Selmer Johansen, was not surprised because she had previously complained to management about staff mistreating her mother.
She said she witnessed carers being verbally abusive, treating her mother roughly when moving her, and turning off her call bell.
“I know that it is difficult looking after dementia patients but … I don’t believe the staff were trained at all to deal with that,” Kathrine said.
“I just don’t understand that kind of treatment.”
Despite having some dementia, Vera told her daughter very clearly what was going on at Regis Nedlands.
“At one stage, Mum was calling seven times a day and leaving messages,” Kathrine said.
“She would be screaming, crying. She would be lying in bed in her faeces for hours. They would sometimes miss her meals, or a common thing was that the meals that they did give her she couldn’t eat.
“I would complain. I’ve written so many emails. The response was always very kind and considerate, but there was no action.”
WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES OF BEDSORES
Kathrine did not see her mother for months because of illness and the COVID lockdown, so when she visited last August she was shocked to see her mother’s weight loss. She said that was because Vera had no teeth for eight months, because Regis failed to get new dentures for her despite her many requests.
“I couldn’t believe that was my mother and how much she had changed in eight months and she was extremely weak … She was begging me to get her out of there. She’d say repeatedly, ‘you don’t know what it’s like in here, they treat me so badly’.”
But there was worse to come — her mother had a pressure wound so deep it cut through to her spine. She took pictures, which we’ve blurred because of their graphic nature.
“I had been told the day before that mum had a bedsore and I didn’t think too much about it … I just thought it was a bit of a surface sore,” she said.
“I asked someone to help me turn her over. They got the nurse and removed her dressing. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw.
“There was a hole about two inches in circumference right through to the spine. It was full of pus and just stinking.”
The wound required hospitalisation, though doctors have told Kathrine it will never fully heal.
Kathrine said the manager at Regis told her it happened because her mother was “non-compliant” and wouldn’t get out of bed.
“I said … ‘surely there’s a way that you move her side to side, or they have special airbeds to distribute the pressure as well,'” Kathrine said.
“There was just no explanation really for it.”
Now back in hospital due to malnutrition, thyroid problems and a urinary tract infection, Vera has told her daughter more details about life inside the nursing home.
“You feel like you’re in a jail in there because there’s nothing for you to do, there’s not one minute of good stuff in there. It’s absolutely dreadful,” Vera said.
“Some of [the carers] were really bad and some of them were really nice and kind. They could see it, even people who worked there could see it.”
Regis did not respond to direct questions about Vera’s care, saying: “Regis cannot and will not provide information about individual residents, families or employees.”
Kathrine said: “Just total disbelief — that this could happen in a country like ours.
“I’m frightened for all the other elderly people out there. I think, ‘how many other people are being treated like this?'”
The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has sanctioned Regis Nedlands for putting residents at “serious risk”.
In a damning report after its inspections in January, at the same time the students were there, it found 30 allegations of rough handling or unwanted sexual contact. They also observed:
- a naked resident covered in faeces wandering around
- people soaked in urine
- elderly with chronic and necrotic wounds
- staff cancelling call bells but not returning to assist
- not enough staff
The Commission told the ABC that they did not request or view the CCTV video showing Brian Hunter going out onto the terrace at Regis Nedlands.
While the sanction is in place, Regis Nedlands is not eligible to receive Commonwealth subsidies for any new residents entering the facility — a period of six months.
The Commission said it would continue to “closely monitor” Regis Nedlands, and if there were ongoing concerns about care and services it “may consider further regulatory action, including whether to vary or revoke the service’s accreditation”.
In February last year, the Commission gave Regis Nedlands a 100 per cent score for passing all safety and quality standards — after an earlier sanction in November 2019 that also found residents there were at “serious risk”.
The final report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety goes to the Governor-General this Friday and will make recommendations on many of the issues identified at Regis Nedlands, such as staff numbers, training and better regulation of the sector.
However, the Government has already indicated it is opposed to a minimum staff training standard and wants to see better evidence that the regulator should be changed.
Meeting for the first time on Sunday, the daughters of Dik Lee, Vera Ward, and Brian Hunter want action now.
“Our government has a responsibility to really act on this and act on it fast. There has been a royal commission. There are some fantastic recommendations there and it really needs to be acted upon very, very quickly,” Kathrine said.
“I really think that the government should look into aged care more carefully and closely because it’s happening everywhere,” Lisa said.
“Even if you pay a million dollars for the aged care facility, you still can’t get good care for the elderly.”
Reporter: Anne Connolly
Digital Producer: Clare Blumer
Video Producer: Jack Fisher
Drone videographer: Glyn Jones