Concerns raised over handling of COVID-19 precautions at Carefree Living

The concerned relative of a resident alleged the senior assisted living facility is disregarding directives by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to protect vulnerable senior populations at assisted living, long-term care and nursing home establishments.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service.

Questions are being raised after a concerned relative alleged a local senior assisted living facility is putting their family member and other residents at risk by not properly adhering to COVID-19 prevention guidelines put in place by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to this concerned relative — who declined to be identified to protect their family member — Carefree Living in east Brainerd has barred access to visitors, has their employees wear masks, and followed sanitization procedures, but ignores guidelines that prohibit gatherings or communal dining for people in these facilities. Senior populations in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, or long-term care facilities are identified as the highest risk population during the COVID-19 pandemic by the CDC.

The relative alleged Carefree Living is continuing to congregate its residents in the dining room in large gatherings at 8 a.m., noon, and 5 p.m., everyday, with little regard for the lethal risk posed to senior citizens by an outbreak of COVID-19.

The concerned relative questioned why Carefree Living hadn’t isolated residents to their rooms and switched to an in-room meal delivery service, as many senior assisted living facilities have done as a preventative measure.

Representatives of Carefree Living declined to comment to the Dispatch, while a representative of its parent company, Spectrum Health Companies, said the facility was following guidelines by the MDH or weren’t subject to other guidelines by the CDC because Carefree Living isn’t licensed as a nursing home, but a senior assisted living facility.


“They said their management, the company that gives them their marching orders, this is what they told them to do,” the concerned relative told the Dispatch Friday, March 27, based on multiple phone conversations and email correspondence with Carefree Living, Spectrum Health Companies, and their family member. “They separate people in the dining room, but still keep the same 30 people in there, and the employees wear masks. I’ve spoken with two people there and they were pretty flat in their response that they weren't going to change anything.”

The concerned relative speculated this decision may be a cost-saving measure, as they believed it’s more expensive to pay for staff hours or hire the necessary staff to isolate, monitor, house and feed them individually during a pandemic. In an email response, Spectrum Health Companies denied this was the case.

“I think they’re probably being cheap and lazy, quite frankly,” the relative said, noting that all restaurants in the Brainerd lakes are closed to sit-down dining as a similar preventative measure. “(Carefree Living residents) show up for these meal times and they're never late. (Residents) usually congregate for 15 minutes or so, milling about until they're ready to eat. You can’t do that anywhere else in Brainerd, except in that dining room where people are most vulnerable.”

The executive director of Carefree Living in Brainerd, Harry Maron, declined to comment.

“I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to get the interview,” Maron said before hanging up on the reporter.

Natalie Wilkens, regional operations manager with Spectrum Health Companies, said Carefree Living was following guidelines put in place by the MDH, but wasn’t violating provisions by the CDC because those pertained to nursing homes, which are licensed differently than assisted living facilities.


“We’ve spread out the tables and are social distancing at all times. If and when the need arises for us to failover (re-equip) our facility, then we have the staff sufficient to do so and it’s in our emergency plan,” Wilkens said. “We’re following all the guidelines of the Minnesota Department of Health.”

The MDH guidelines state an assisted living facility should isolate residents to their rooms and prohibit social gatherings or communal dining. The language of the guideline does seem indicate this protocol would be implemented after a COVID-19 infection is confirmed or suspected to be present in an assisted living population, while the same directive states facilities should bar visitors from entering the facility — a protocol already being implemented by Carefree Living and other senior assisted living facilities in the area.

At the same time, Julie Bartkey, a public information officer with the MDH, said that while Carefree Living may be following MDH guidelines, Minnesota’s protocols explicitly reference, defer to and largely overlap with directives by the CDC. She also noted these guidelines are fluid and likely to change as the pandemic progresses and more information becomes available to health officials.

According to the COVID-19 guidelines by the CDC, all social gatherings or communal dining are prohibited in nursing homes and long-term care facilities during a pandemic, while “most” of these provisions can also be applied to assisted living facilities.

The Dispatch contacted the CDC central office in Atlanta, Georgia, for clarification on what differentiates a nursing home or long-term care facility from an assisted living facility, or how Carefree Living should be categorized, but did not receive a response by deadline Sunday evening. According to its website, Carefree Living offers home care, memory care, and 24/7 staffing by specially-trained employees.

In talks with administrators at Northland Senior Living, Good Samaritan Society-Woodland and Good Samaritan Society-Bethany, Central Minnesota Senior Care, Edgewood Vista in Brainerd and Edgewood Senior Living in Baxter, employees noted they’re following directives of the CDC by barring visitors from entering, wearing masks, following rigorous cleaning and sanitation regimens, as well as isolating residents to their rooms.

During meal time, representatives of these facilities stated they provide in-room meal service and/or limit meal time participation to two or three residents at a time, with residents spaced out in areas far exceeding the 6 foot minimum stipulated by the CDC.

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GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at .

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