NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - State lawmakers, department of health officials, and local government leaders met Wednesday to discuss concerns surrounding the elderly in South Carolina.
Two women who lived in assisted living communities in the Charleston area have died in the last three months after managing to wander out of the building.
Now leaders are looking for solutions to keeping your loved ones safe.
"One death is one too many, one incident is one too many with our seniors," said Charleston County Representative Wendell Gilliard. "God knows we treat animals with dignity and respect. We need to do the same, if not more for our seniors."
There are 466 assisted living centers in South Carolina, and 194 nursing homes.
Gwen Thompson, Chief of the Bureau of Health Facilities with the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said there are major differences between these facilities.
Assisted living centers are meant to keep residents living as independently as possible, providing room, board, and a degree of personal assistance. Whereas nursing homes provide more intermediate care or skilled nursing care.
Thompson said the department takes complaints against all facilities very seriously.
She believes there's no clear cut answer to preventing situations from the past from happening again, but does feel one of the issues boils down to the staff.
"If you don't hire staff that is trained, if you don't hire staff that is dependable, how dependable are they?" she said. "[How dependable] is it when they're all out smoking? They're not doing their job."
According to state regulations, minimum staffing ratios for assisted living centers have one employee for every eight residents during peak hours (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), one employee for every 30 residents during off-peak hours (7 p.m. to 7 a.m.).
Gilliard said the latter was most shocking fact after researching regulations for facilities.
"What I'm hearing today is the regulations that are in place are too soft," he said. "We have to make the owners of these facilities understand that enough is enough. We're not going to stand for it anymore."
"Vulnerable adults don't necessarily sleep," said Kim Ford, North Charleston's Mayor's Office on Aging. "You have things such as sundowners, and dementia, and with those type of diagnoses people sometimes aren't sleeping. They can get their nights and days mixed up. There are medications they're on that don't make them sleep."
For nursing homes there must be one licensed nursing employee per every 44 residents per shift and in the staff area; 2 licensed nursing employees per every 45 residents (or more) per work area for shift one; and one licensed nursing employee per every 45 residents (or more) per work area for shifts two and three. Non-licensed nursing staff regulations show one employee for every nine residents for shift one; one employee for every 13 residents for shift two; and one employee for every 22 residents for shift three.
Leaders also discussed monitoring solutions to prevent seniors from wandering off.
Richland County Representative Leon Howard suggested GPS monitoring devices.
"We can't keep looking at it like it's just a 90-year-old person, oh well," Howard said. "GPS systems are too expensive… we can't do that. One life is far more valuable than what it's going to cost for a GPS system."
Thompson said they don't wand residents to feel like they're in an institution by creating monitoring devices for them. Lawmakers agree, but say there should be a way around it.
"If we can use modern day technology to improve the lives of our seniors, then we need to jump on it," Gilliard said. "You'll be hearing more about that."
Gilliard said he will be looking over options and plans to pre-file bills to change regulations with these care facilities.
Howard added changes will be coming, and is willing to debate these changes during the legislative session.