More Families Are Using Nanny Cams to Watch Elderly Loved Ones, Raising Ethical Questions

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Jackie Costanzo and her 93-year-old mom, Louise, are happy to have an extra way to stay connected with the camera, which is normally placed on a television stand facing her mom's bed. (Courtesy Jackie Costanzo)

After Jackie Costanzo’s mother broke her right hip in a fall, she needed more hands-on care in her assisted-living apartment near Sacramento, California. A social worker from her health plan suggested installing a video camera to help ensure those services were provided.

Without the camera, Costanzo wouldn’t have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.

When Costanzo placed the device in May 2018, she informed the administrator and staff, and at first, there were no objections. The facility posted a sign on the apartment’s front door, alerting anyone who entered of recording in progress.

But this past spring, a new management company came across the sign and threatened to issue a 30-day eviction notice to her 93-year-old mother, Louise Munch, who has dementia, for violating a policy that prohibits cameras in residents’ rooms. With encouragement from California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Costanzo researched the state’s regulations but couldn’t find anything to support or deny camera use. She refused to remove the recording device and prevailed.

“In essence, my mom was ‘grandfathered in’ because she moved in under a management company that did not specify that residents could not have cameras,” says Costanzo, 73, a retired elementary schoolteacher who lives a three-hour drive away, in Silicon Valley, and visits one day every two weeks. Without the camera, Costanzo, who is her mother’s only surviving child, wouldn’t have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs. 

As technological innovations enable next of kin to remain apprised of the elderly’s daily care in long-term care facilities, surveillance cameras bring legal and privacy issues to the forefront of a complex ethical debate. Families place them overtly or covertly—disguised in a makeshift clock radio, for instance—when they suspect or fear abuse or neglect, so they can maintain a watchful eye, perhaps deterring egregious behavior. But the cameras also capture intimate caregiving tasks, such as bathing and toileting, as well as dressing and undressing, which may undermine the dignity of residents.

So far, laws or guidelines in eight states—Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington—have granted families the rights to install cameras in a resident’s room. In addition, about 15 other states have proposed legislation. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have put forth regulatory compliance guidance, according to a column published in the July/August 2018 issue of Annals of Long-Term Care.

The increasing prevalence of this legislation has placed it on the radar of long-term care providers. It also suggests a trend to clarify responsible camera use in monitoring services while respecting privacy, says Victor Lane Rose, the column’s editor and director of aging services at ECRI Institute, a health care nonprofit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In most cases, a resident’s family installs a camera or instigates a request in hopes of sparing their loved one from the harms of abuse, says James Wright, a family physician who serves as the ethics committee’s vice chair of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine in Columbia, Maryland. A camera also allows the family to check in on the resident from afar and remain on alert for a potential fall or agitated state, he says. 

“It’s rare that a facility will have 24-hour presence in a patient’s room. You won’t have a nurse in there all the time,” says Wright, who is also medical director of two long-term care centers and one assisted-living facility around Richmond, Virginia. Particularly “with dementia, the family often wonders” if their loved one is safe.

While offering families peace of mind, he notes that video cameras can also help exonerate caregivers accused of abuse or theft. Hearing aids, which typically cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each, often go missing. By reviewing a video together, families and administrators may find clues to a device’s disappearance. Conversely, Wright empathizes with the main counterargument against camera use, which is the belief that “invasion of privacy is also invasion of human dignity.” 

In respecting modesty, ethical questions abound over whether a camera should be turned off when a patient is in the midst of receiving personal care, such as dressing and undressing or using bedpans. Other ethical issues revolve around who may access the recordings, says Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care in Washington, D.C. 

Video cameras, she contends, are only one tool in shielding residents from abuse. They are “not substitutes for personal involvement,” she says. “People need to be very vigilant visiting their family members, and facilities have a responsibility to ensure that residents are free of abuse.” 

Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding.

Educating employees in abuse prevention becomes paramount, and families should ask about staff training before placing their loved one in a long-term care facility, Smetanka says. Prior to installing a camera, she recommends consulting an attorney who is familiar with this issue.

But thoughts of a camera often don’t occur to families until an adverse event affects their loved one, says Toby Edelman, a senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. 

“These cameras can show exactly what’s going on,” she explains, noting that prosecutors have used the recordings in litigation. “When residents have injuries of unknown origin” and they can’t verbalize what happened to them, “the cameras may document that yes, the resident was actually hit by somebody.” 

With a resident’s safety and security being “the most important consideration,” the American Health Care Association in Washington, D.C., which represents long-term and post-acute care providers, supports allowing states, clinicians, and patients to decide about camera use on a local level, says David Gifford, senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs and chief medical officer. 

“We’ve seen some success with tools such as permissive legislation, where residents and their loved ones have the ability to determine whether a camera is right for them while working with the center openly and ensuring the confidentiality of other residents,” says Gifford, who practiced as a geriatrician. “It is important to note, however, that surveillance cameras are still only one element of the quality matrix. We can never hope to truly improve quality care by catching bad actors after the fact.”

Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding. Low wages and morale are tied to high turnover, and cameras don’t address this overarching problem, says Clara Berridge, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has co-authored articles on surveillance devices in elder care.

Employees often don’t perceive a nursing assistant position as a long-term career trajectory and may not feel vested in the workplace. Training in the recognition and reporting of abuse becomes ineffective when workers quit shortly thereafter. Many must juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Staffing shortages are endemic, leading to inadequate oversight of residents and voicing of abuse complaints, she says.

In Berridge’s assessment, cameras may do more harm than good. Respondents to a survey she conducted of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the United States found that recording devices tend to fuel workers’ anxiety amid a culture that further demoralizes and dehumanizes the care they provide.

Consent becomes particularly thorny in shared rooms, which are more common than not in nursing homes. States that permit in-room cameras mandate that roommates or their legal representative be made aware. Even if the camera is directed away from their bed, it will still capture conversations as well as movements that enter its scope. “Surveillance isn’t the best way to protect adults in need of support,” Berridge says. “Public investment in quality care is.”

"The camera is invaluable. But there’s no law that says you can have it automatically, so that’s wrong."

In the one-bedroom assisted-living apartment where Costanzo’s mother lives alone, consent from another resident wasn’t needed. Without a roommate, the camera is much less intrusive, although Costanzo wishes she had put one in the living room, not just the bedroom, for more security.

Her safety concerns escalated when she read about a Texas serial killer who smothered victims after gaining access to senior care facilities by “masquerading as a maintenance man.” She points to such horrifying incidents, although exceedingly rare, as further justification for permitting cameras to help guard the vulnerable against abuse in long-term care settings. And she hopes to advocate for an applicable law in California.

“The camera is invaluable,” says Costanzo, who pays for monthly Wi-Fi service so she can see and interact with her mother, who turns 94 in October, any time of day or night. “But there’s no law that says you can have it automatically, so that’s wrong.”

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