OCEANSIDE — Aaron Byzak founded Hazel’s Army community group after he got a phone called that changed his life. His aunt called and said the hospice nurse reported his grandmother, Hazel Mensching, had a bump on her head.
When Byzak got to the assisted living facility where Mensching resided, two blocks from his house, he found much more had happened.
His grandmother had been on a facility-organized day trip. Her wheelchair was strapped into the bus, but she was not strapped into the chair. When the driver made a sudden stop she flew out of the wheelchair and landed several feet ahead of it. No 911 call was made. She was put back in the wheelchair and the trip continued.
When she returned to the residential care facility there was a visible bump on her head, but still no 911 call was made.
Byzak had worked as an EMT and now works as director of Government and Community Affairs for UC San Diego Health Sciences. When he arrived he checked his grandmother and found she had an injured shoulder and arm and broken leg in addition to the visible bump on her head.
“They let her sit for hours,” Byzak said.
Knowing that the most immediate help would come in response to a landline 911 call, he insisted staff make the call. Reluctantly they did.
His grandmother was taken to a hospital and died from the injuries a few days later.
Byzak described the lack of action by numerous staff members at the assisted living facility as “unthinkable.”
He said he was fueled with purpose to see that residential care facilities improve their practices.
“The goal has been to create an environment where seniors are better protected,” Byzak said.
“My grandmother died in a very tragic way. It’s not going to be in vain. It’s going to inspire change.”
Looking into matters further he found current laws were lacking. He shared examples of the minimal requirements assisted living facilities adhere to such as 40 hours of training to operate a 100-bed facility, 10 hours of training to work with a person with dementia, and a fine of $150 for acts of negligence including incidents that lead to the death of a resident.
“It’s nonsensical,” Byzak said. “Someone can get fined $250 for parking in my grandmother’s handicapped space, but they are charged $150 if they kill her.”
Byzak formed Hazel’s Army in 2014 to provide information, resources and raise the bar for assisted living facility care. He funds the group, which runs at minimal cost, himself.
The first year Byzak was involved in efforts that helped pass 12 state laws to protect individuals in residential care facilities. His focus has been on assisted living facilities that are overseen by the Department of Social Services. They are not subject to the more rigorous rules of skilled nursing facilities that are overseen by the Department of Public Health and have doctors on site.
New state and county laws Byzak helped pass have increased required training hours for residential care workers, added the requirement that facilities carry liability insurance, raised the fine for negligence to $15,000 and added protection from firing for whistle blowers. There are now double the number of ombudsmen who monitor facilities, and a database that families can access to gain information about facilities.
Byzak also formed a support network through the Hazel’s Army Facebook page where families can gain information and share their stories.
He said not all news about residential care facilities is bad. There are well-run facilities and caring individuals who work at them. His goal is to inform people of their rights, and raise the level of expectations for elder care.
This year Hazel’s Army will launch the GreatGen 2.0 program that will teach youth about the contributions of those dubbed the Greatest Generation for having served in World War II and lived through the Great Depression. The program will begin in February and involve local schools, YMCAs and senior centers. Byzak said the goal of the program is to grow a new generation of young people who have respect and affinity for seniors, and watch out for their welfare. The program will also work to inspire youth to do great things in their lives.
Hazel’s Army will hold a vigil this Friday on the sidewalk outside the assisted living facility where his grandmother formerly resided. The vigil marks the second anniversary of her death and serves as a shared memorial for families who have endured a similar crisis.
“It’s about bringing together people to remember those lost in assisted living abuse and neglect,” Byzak said.
A press conference will be held Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the Salvation Army on 3935 Lake Boulevard. The vigil will take place across the street immediately afterward. For more information go to facebook.com/hazelsarmy.