By Josie Huang/LAist
Originally published Aug 30, 2021
Tomiko Nakayama watched anxiously as the lunch crowd at her senior care facility for Japanese Americans rapidly thinned over the summer.
“Why are so many people disappearing?” Nakayama would ask family members in Japanese, her unease heightened by worsening dementia.
The facility’s owner, Pacifica Companies, had received state approval to shutter what it said was a money-losing enterprise among several senior homes it operates on the Sakura Gardens campus in Boyle Heights. Residents were being pulled out of the Intermediate Care Facility ahead of the planned mid-August closure by their loved ones, despite fears of moving vulnerable seniors to new homes as the delta variant spread through Los Angeles County.
Nakayama, 93, had lived at the Intermediate Care Facility for eight years and didn’t want to leave behind the Japanese-speaking staff and traditional meals — rare, culturally-specific offerings in the world of senior care provided in a neighborhood that was once a regional hub of Japanese American life.
Her family had reason to believe she could stay: A bill in the state legislature, inspired by the predicament of Nakayama and other residents, would ban the transfer of senior care residents during the pandemic, and it appeared to be consolidating support among lawmakers.
On Monday afternoon, the bill crossed its last hurdle in the Legislature with a unanimous vote in the Assembly.
“This bill proposes a temporary eviction moratorium for nursing home residents during the pandemic,” said its co-author, Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance before the 57-0 vote.
AB 279 is now headed to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Should he sign the bill, the victory would come too late for residents of the intermediate care facility.
Every single resident has since moved out. The facility, which last year was housing roughly 70 seniors, is now closed.
In late July, Tomiko Nakayama’s son took her to her new home at the Atherton senior care community in Alhambra, where as many as two dozen other Sakura Gardens residents have also transferred.
“It really began to more heavily weigh on my mind that I need to get my mother out for her own mental well-being,” said her son, Ken Nakayama of Tustin.
The passage of AB 279 is a bittersweet coda to a months-long family ordeal over the future well-being of his mother, a Japanese immigrant who worked in Los Angeles as a seamstress.
“I wouldn’t want any family members to go through what we went through. I wouldn’t want any residents to go through what my mother went through,” Ken Nakayama said. “At least now residents won’t have to take a chance and be transferred to a facility which maybe has a Covid outbreak.”
Under AB 279, the ban on transferring senior care residents during the pandemic would last until July 2022, with certain exceptions such as an owner filing for bankruptcy.
A representative for Pacifica, when reached by phone after the passage of AB 279 on Monday, declined an interview.
Pacifica had previously said it wanted to close the intermediate care facility, one of several senior housing complexes on the Sakura Gardens campus, because reimbursement by the state’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, for most of its residents, was too low to keep up with wages and other operational costs.
The San Diego-based company has indicated that it may replace the intermediate care facility with market-rate housing — an affront to many in the Japanese American community who have come to rely on Sakura Gardens as a place where fixed-income elders could live out their last years.
Pacifica continues to operate a dementia care unit and assisted living facility on the Sakura Gardens campus, which have more privately-insured residents. It also runs Kei-Ai Los Angeles in Lincoln Heights, which at a point earlier this year was identified as the deadliest of nursing homes in the state during the pandemic.
Save Our Seniors, a group that organized and held rallies to support residents at Sakura’s Intermediate Care Facility, expects AB 279 to provide continued oversight of Pacifica and how it operates its other homes.
Save Our Seniors member David Maldonado’s interpretation of the bill calls for Pacifica to keep following the conditions of its 2016 purchase of the Sakura Gardens campus and other operations from the non-profit Keiro Senior HealthCare. Those provisions, which include providing culturally-competent care to Japanese Americans, expired in February, five years after the sale.
“We don’t have any confidence that Pacifica is interested in serving our community,” said Maldonado, whose relatives used to live on the Sakura Gardens campus. Of the closure of the intermediate care facility, he said: “This is just the first domino.”
Maldonado said Save Our Seniors will be closely following the fate of six or so of the last remaining residents of the Intermediate Care facility whom Pacifica allowed to move to other housing on its Sakura Gardens campus, pending state approval to reimburse their care under Medi-Cal.
Although the Intermediate Care Facility is closed, some of the residents’ relatives plan to keep meeting online.
Ken Nakayama is one of them. He said the families want to ensure that the seniors, now scattered across the region, are still getting the culturally-sensitive care they once cherished at Sakura Gardens.
“It’s important to follow and complete the story,” said Makayama, “from eviction to the fate of people evicted.”
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.