What caused Opal Sande to change?

Published 3:18 pm Saturday, December 20, 2008

Last fall, Good Samaritan Society resident Opal Sande changed. She fussed when someone wanted to take her photograph. She slapped hands away whenever relatives would touch her. In fact, she sometimes shoved people away.

Opal suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Relatives speculated the behavior was part of the progression of the disorders. But then her edgy behavior stopped abruptly in May. She returned to being a calm, approachable woman. Then a Good Sam nurse informed relatives that Opal possibly had been a victim of abuse.

“I know this stuff that was happening to her affected her in that way,” said Sande’s daughter, Myrna Sorensen of Alden.

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However, the Good Sam nurse could not divulge what kind of abuse because of ongoing investigations. Sorensen and her brothers were left wondering whether it was physical, emotional or sexual in nature.

It wasn’t until the day before a Minnesota Department of Health report came out in August that Good Sam was able to tell Sorensen the state investigation found her mother had been a victim of various kinds of abuse.

But that left another question: Who are the relatives of the other alleged victims? Because of privacy laws, Good Sam was unable to tell her.

Sorensen would like to know the other relatives of alleged victims in the elder abuse case. She said she also wants to form a Freeborn County support group for victims of elder abuse and their friends and families, whether they are connected to the same case as her mother or to any case.

The allegations of abuse by teenage female certified nursing assistants have left families looking in hindsight with questions over behavior of their loved ones. The Department of Health report and Albert Lea Police Department investigation said the victims suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Sorensen has been patching together the memories of her mother’s behavior over the past year. It makes her feel regretful.

“You think I should have noticed that I should’ve picked up on this. You just beat yourself up,” she said.

The Freeborn County attorney filed gross misdemeanor charges Dec. 1 against CNAs Brianna Broitzman, 19, and Ashton Larson, 18. Four other CNAs face juvenile charges because they were younger than 18 at the time of the alleged abuse.

Opal Sande died on Sept. 23, two months shy of her 90th birthday. She had seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

She was born Opal Bang in Joice, Iowa, and graduated as salutatorian from Joice High School in 1937. The red-haired beauty married Lloyd Sande the next year at Round Prairie Lutheran Church. They farmed 10 miles south of Albert Lea in Freeman Township.

Sorensen said her mother loved the outdoors. She said she also liked crochet, flowers and dogs.

“We always had a small dog in the house,” she said.

They left the farm in 1966 and moved to Albert Lea, where they were landlords. Opal became a widow in the late 1980s. She lived on Ruble Avenue for many years and enjoyed traveling and camping with grandchildren. One of the fondest memories her relatives have was a trip she took at age 70 with them to Norway. The family has Norwegian roots.

Myrna Sorensen and Jan Reshatar are forming a support group for anyone in the area who has loved ones who have suffered abuse in a nursing home. Sorensen can be reached at (507) 874-3436. Reshatar can be reached at (507) 402-4749.

A Perfect Cause’s number is (405) 308-3858.

Eventually, the dementia and Alzheimer’s set in. She needed care and moved to Brian’s Elder Care on Southview Lane, Sorensen said. Opal spent two years there, but her disorders were growing and one day she fell. It was clear she needed greater therapy, Sorensen said, so Opal was moved to Good Samaritan Society. Her room was in the secure Angel Wing, which no longer exists.

Sorensen said she cried with the nurse who told her about elder abuse in August and said many hard workers must deal with problems caused by former employees now facing charges. However, she is upset with Good Sam administration about what she said was a lack of supervision.

“They were asking for trouble by putting a bunch of teenagers there without supervision,” she said. “Just because they had Alzheimer’s didn’t mean they could do anything to them.”

The Minnesota Department of Health report exonerated Good Sam and issued no penalties.

Sorensen’s husband, Dean, said though the report claims abuse occurred January through May, they noticed a change in Opal’s behavior starting sometime in the fall months, and she was particularly unsettled near Christmas.

“It was not easy to have Christmas with her,” he said.

The Department of Health report describes interviews with the suspects. It indeed mentions photographs and videos taken of the teenagers reportedly abusing residents. Dean Sorensen said he feels Opal’s reluctance to have her photo taken was probably connected.

Albert Lea Police Chief Dwaine Winkels said investigators read about the photos and videos mentioned by some suspects in the Minnesota Department of Health reports and received warrants to search cameras and cell phones but found no visual evidence. They also widely searched the Internet, assuming there had been an upload. He said they found nothing but the public should know the photo or video evidence could be online somewhere.

He said if anyone searching the Internet finds anything that remotely could be evidence, please contact the Albert Lea Police Department at 377-5215.

Though the allegations in the Department of Health report are lurid, people searching for visual evidence should keep in mind some of the items mentioned are less graphic.

Here is one passage from the report: “There is a video of resident #5 when his hat fell off, and ‘I was trying to hand it back to him, and he smacked my hand.’ She stated that he was angry, and they took a video. She stated that it was only her group of friends that saw the pictures or videos of the residents.”

Several of the suspects in the report gave a description of the same video.

No physical evidence of the videos or photographs turned up in the Albert Lea Police Department investigation.

Myrna Sorensen said she also wishes the police investigators had interviewed her.

“They never talked to me about my mother,” she said.

She said as a daughter she wanted to make sure she takes proper care of her mother; the allegations of abuse have made her question her choices over and over. She said the teenagers facing charges failed to see the elderly nursing home residents as real people.

“They have taken away our trust, and they have taken the love of our parent,” she said. “Our feelings were really hurt by this.”

Sorensen said after the Department of Health report came out in August, she kept Opal at Good Sam because she figured that the nursing home would be extra careful to treat her well in the wake of the controversy over care.

She has been in touch with Wes Bledsoe, an Oklahoman who founded the nonprofit organization A Perfect Cause and who is a advocate for victims of abuse at nursing homes. She said his presence in Albert Lea earlier this month was comforting. People from the organization have spoken to Sorensen and they also are looking to get in touch with relatives of victims.

“You just know there is somebody out there who can help you,” Sorensen said.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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