THE DEATHS, under unusual circumstances, of two residents of D.C. Village, the District's home for the aged, has again focused attention on conditions at the 70-year old facility in Southwest Washington. In January, Wilhemina Franklin, an 86-year-old, wheelchair-bound D.C. Village resident, was found frozen to death 50 feet from the building where she lived. Last week, George Spells, a 71-year-old resident, died from burns sustained from scalding bath water. How could such events occur?
Throughout the 1970s, D.C. Village was criticized by everyone, from D.C. Council members to officials of the federal Health, Education and Welfare Department, and the problems repeatedly were blamed on a critical staffing shortage. There were roach-and mouse-infested facilities. There were too few activities for patients who just sat about. Incontinent patients had to wait to be cleaned and reclothed. There was suspected brutality against residents from staff members. Staff turnover was high.
But now, we are told, the staffing problem is not so severe. The number of residents has dropped from a high of 617 in 1981 to 432. City officials say the current 304 nursing and treatment staff members, supplemented by as many as 50 nurses from private firms, means that residents get more attention. So the problem lies elsewhere. The care and treatment of the aged and infirm can be an enormous and trying and depressing task. Staffing levels will never be as high or as uniformly competent as desired, but these residents and their families, if any, can look to no one else for help. Those charged with the responsibility of their care have got to do the job.
Some time passed before staff members began a search for Wilhemina Franklin, in violation of clear rules calling for an immediate search for a missing patient. The city's own inspection team told D.C. Village officials four years ago that hot-water temperatures had to be cut to below scalding levels. Officials said special valves would be installed to regulate the hot water. Mr. Spells' death indicates that that has not been done, or has not been done effectively.
In 1976, HEW threatened to cut off funds from D.C. Village if improvements were not made in staffing, infection control, dietary services and other areas. A chorus of the city's elected and appointed officials stridently decried conditions there and said that changes would be made. Some changes still need to be made, and it appears the city has the resources to make them.