Dying for Dollars

Frank and Norma Dougherty lived a modest American dream. It should not have ended in a nightmare.

Frank served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army during World War II, then worked for years as a mechanical engineer at the Denver Federal Center. Norma was a homemaker who devoted herself to raising the couple's four children, keeping their Lakewood home comfortable, and doing volunteer work in the community with the Red Cross and PTA.

In the 1970s the couple retired and moved to a home in the mountains above Silver Plume. Frank joined the Masons, and Norma sang with the church choir. But their golden years were about to turn bleak.

Both Frank and Norma started having health problems. After Norma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the Doughertys moved to Lakewood to be closer to their children. Frank also began to have trouble remembering things, like paying bills. One day he woke up in excruciating pain. His daughter Catherine drove him to Lutheran Hospital, where he was diagnosed with blood clots in his arteries and legs.

The Doughertys' doctor told Catherine that her parents could no longer live independently. For a while, Frank and Norma had in-home caregivers, but as their health worsened, the family made the difficult decision to move them into a nursing facility. In 1993 they chose Cedars Health Care Center in Lakewood, which had just set up a special "sheltered freedom unit" for patients with Alzheimer's or dementia.

"Cedars said they had a secured unit that was clean and they'd have quality care and quality of life," recalls Catherine. "They were supposed to have social activities on a regular basis, keep them clean and do their laundry."

Two months after her parents moved in, Catherine was alarmed by what she found during a visit. "Dad was sitting on the floor with a big gash on his head," she says. "He was just sitting there. Apparently no one had checked on him or noticed. My father didn't remember what had happened."

She became increasingly concerned as the months rolled by. Her parents' belongings, including her father's shaver and her mother's jewelry, disappeared. Even underwear and socks seemed to vanish. And Catherine was convinced the nursing-home staff was neglecting basic hygiene.

"We'd walk in, and the mattress would be slipped off the box springs, there would be no sheets, and they'd be sleeping on plastic," she says. "The toilet was stopped up and wouldn't flush. The place was filthy."

Norma and Frank were placed on psychotropic drugs and were so doped up they couldn't talk to their own children. They were rarely bathed. One day Catherine discovered an uncut toenail on her father that had infected his foot and apparently hadn't been noticed by the Cedars staff.

Her complaints to the nursing-home management were ignored.
When she visited her parents on Christmas Day, her father was upset and so exhausted he couldn't walk. Catherine believes the staff had forcibly held him down so that he could be dressed and shaved. She was even more disturbed after a Father's Day visit. "When I opened the door, the smell of urine was so strong I could hardly breathe," she says. "My father was lying in his bed in a pool of his own urine. He had bruises and skin tears all over his arms."

Frank Dougherty started getting severe bedsores. He lost forty pounds at Cedars. "It got to the point that his body just gave out," Catherine says.

The family had been looking frantically for another facility that would take both Frank and Norma. In 1996 Catherine was able to move her mother to the Evergreen Terrace Care Center in Lakewood--but there was no bed available for a male resident.

Frank Dougherty died in the spring of 1996, before his family was able to move him to another home.

After leaving Cedars, Norma Dougherty made a remarkable recovery. "They weaned her off the drugs so she was functioning again," Catherine says. Norma seemed much less anxious and stopped the nervous twitching and compulsive hand-wringing her family had observed when they saw her at Cedars. She began to enjoy visits with her family.

Today Norma lives in a small home that specializes in caring for Alzheimer's patients. She enjoys sitting on the patio near the flower garden and has even started singing again, favorite songs like "You Are My Sunshine" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Her mother is taking joy in life, Catherine says. He father didn't get that last chance.

"It was worse than a nightmare," says Catherine Dougherty. "We trusted those people, but we found out in a heartbreaking way how inhumane their treatment is.

"It's a loss of dignity for the people who made our lives. They deserve more, at least a little love and compassion. They deserve that."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers