James Cavallo, 74, has numerous grievances against Casa de Los Amigos management, including cacti that he says was planted to restrict residents from using a bench in the garden. Photo by Kelley Kim.
Barbara Grasso has always fought for constitutional rights. But the 78-year-old former workers’ rights lawyer never thought she’d have to do so in her retirement home.
Grasso was the president of the residents’ association at Casa de Los Amigos, a 136-unit independent senior living center on Catalina Avenue in Redondo Beach, until its disbandment at the end of last year — a dissolution she says was encouraged by Casa management. In an effort to revive the association, early this summer she posted flyers on bulletin boards throughout the complex.
“In this country, we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the residents to form an association,” the flyers read.
They were torn down as soon as they went up. Grasso believes management is responsible for the flyers’ removal in an effort to discourage dissent.
She spoke on the issue before the Redondo Beach City Council in early July and described the treatment of Casa residents as “elder abuse.” She told the council that management has imposed curfews on communal areas, imposed a dress code, and “chilled” free speech rights.
“Those flyers are a freedom of your right as an individual to speak and the right to form an association,” Grasso told the council. “This is our country, and we have a right to live in it with our constitutional rights not infringed or abridged.”
Councilmember Bill Brand, whose District 2 includes Casa de Los Amigos, said he would ask city staff to engage with Casa residents and management to mediate the situation.
“That is unacceptable for our seniors in Redondo Beach,” Brand said.
Though city council has no managerial authority over the Casa, Brand is keen to work with the residents and management to achieve some sort of resolution. Over the course of this past year, Brand has met with Casa residents several times to hear their complaints about the way the Casa was being managed.
“It was not my impression that this was just a few people,” Brand recalled. “If 10 people are going to meet their local councilmember in walkers and wheelchairs at a local restaurant, that tells me there is a problem.”
“I don’t like hearing the way seniors are being treated at a senior facility in Redondo Beach,” Brand said. “People have told me they’re in fear of complaining about basic things because they’re in fear of being evicted.”
For some residents of the Casa, the flyers are only the tip of the iceberg.
James Cavallo, 74, has lived at the Casa for over 10 years. He takes issue with the practices of the current property manager, Dottie Ellis, and her staff. His complaints range from constitutional rights to smaller actions that he says have diminished residents’ sense of independence — like the planting of a cactus on a bench residents used to enjoy and the removal of kitchen privileges.
“We’re not bloodthirsty people here,” he said. “We’re not out for vengeance. But there are just some things that we just want back. We want our freedom to think like we do…We don’t want nobody governing over us, watching over us like we’re little kids and hollering at us. We’d like to feed the squirrels again. We’d like to watch the birds take their baths in the bird baths. We’d like the cactus removed from the bench over there.”
Cavallo remembers a time before current management when the lobby of the Casa was bustling with people socializing and laughing. Now, he says, the common areas are as lifeless as a morgue.
“I’ll tell you how she figures she can keep on getting away with it,” Cavallo said. “Because we die off. And we lose people that way. New people have no idea.”
Some praise Ellis and others find her unfair.
A 10-year resident of the Casa who wished to remain anonymous recalled being woken up late at night by Ellis screaming at another resident regarding her laundry.
“She’s supposed to be the property manager, not the judge, jury, and executioner,” the resident said. “So many of us want to say things but we’re in a dilemma where we can’t because we’re afraid.”
Don Pearson, a 22-year resident of the Casa, thinks that, on occasion, some yelling on the part of a manager to an impaired resident is deserved.
“Some, they needed it,” Pearson said. “They were walking away from an incident…You’re dealing with people who have dementia.”
Ellis refrained from direct comment.
“It’s a landlord-tenant issue, and there’s privacy involved,” said Ellis. “It is between the tenants and us, and we need to leave it there now.”
But Ellis made it clear that she is aware some residents have complaints about her managerial practices.
“They want me out, the three of them,” Ellis said, in reference to George Clark, Cavallo, and Grasso, the trio who have been leading a sort of grassroots movement to empower residents.
Stalwarts of Casa management include Vivian Dickerson, far left, and Ellen Jordan, standing. Photo by Kelley Kim.
Casa resident Vivian Dickerson made it clear whose side she is on.
“As far as I know, there’s three people that have nothing better to do but complain,” she said.
Julia Moore, executive director of Community Housing Management Services, which oversees the property, declined comment.
According to Clark, another longtime Casa resident, Moore’s response to the discussion at city council was succinct: “Bill Brand’s an idiot. The mayor’s an idiot. They can’t tell us what to do.”
In its heyday, the Casa de Los Amigos residents’ association had 53 members. They cooked together on weekends and went on trips. But some residents did not view the association in a positive light.
“I’ve been here six years,” said Ellen Jordan, who is 89. “I haven’t been to an association meeting which wasn’t an all-out shouting match where nothing gets resolved.”
Clark claims that some 60 residents agree with allegations against the management. He said that with a day’s notice, thirty residents showed up to a meeting regarding what should be brought to the attention of city council.
Though some clashes between residents and staff are fairly benign, some verge on the edge of violence. Cavallo, who uses a mobility scooter, recalled an instance where he asked an assistant night manager named Richard to allow him access to the ice machine room only to be allegedly verbally and physically assaulted.
“He really started getting nasty and calling me names, like mf’er and s.o.b.,” Cavallo recalled. “He took his set of keys and he was pointing at them that far from my eyes. I was driving away from him, getting away from him, and he keeps on swearing at me, hollering at me.”
“Why can’t we just be left alone?” Cavallo said. “Most of us are in our twilight years. We don’t have much longer to live. I’m here fighting for the old people that are staying in their rooms and afraid to come out….Darnit, why treat these older people like this? It’s just not right.”
“I really do believe that what they’re doing is elder abuse,” Grasso said. “It’s gotta be the most sinister thing I’ve seen in a long time.”
71-year-old Bob Elliott was left without backup oxygen during a scheduled power outage at Casa de Los Amigos. He blames Casa management for the snafu. Photo by Kelley Kim.
Bob Elliott, 71, has lived in the Casa for three years. Up until last December, he used to be a professional Santa Claus and still has the beard to prove it. He has pulmonary fibrosis and must be on oxygen all the time at a rate of six liters of oxygen per minute.
He blames Casa staff for risking his life. During a scheduled power outage for routine maintenance, Elliott was left without backup oxygen.
“I had no oxygen,” said Elliott. “I was sitting up here gasping for air….I was just going to have to lay here and take what came my way.”
Elliott claims management did not tell the residents of the scheduled power outage. Once Ellis became aware of Elliott’s situation, he acknowledges that she rushed up to his room with a portable liquid oxygen unit.
Other residents are mystified by the complaints.
PJ, who has lived in the Casa for a year, commended the Casa and its management.
“I love it here,” PJ said. “I count my blessings everyday. I’m thrilled I’m here. I’ve never had anything but good thoughts about this place.”
Father Bob Cornner, the leader of the Christ Episcopal Church on S. Broadway, which founded the senior living center, also defended the Casa.
“It’s the kind of place I would love to live,” Cornner, 67, said. “I would recommend any senior who can get in there and qualify to do so.”
He remembers one parish member who resided at the Casa telling him: “Who would guess that a bum like me would be overlooking King Harbor from a third floor west-facing apartment on the Pacific coast?”
Other residents sing Ellis’ praises.
“This is the best place in the world,” said Diana Luna. “I’ve only been here since November, but I am blessed to be here.”
Luna is a fan of Ellis, and compared her metaphorically to Jesus Christ. “She is so kind to people here. She’s a wonderful woman. She’s asked me if I needed anything, and the office staff are so helpful. She goes out of her way to help people….as I’m concerned, she walks on water.”
“We’re not abused,” said Ellen Jordan. “I have never heard [Ellis] say anything bad about anybody.”
“I love it here,” said Karen, a 14-year Casa resident. “I’ve landed and gone to heaven. The management is very supportive. I couldn’t ask for anything better. And who doesn’t have problems wherever you are in the world?”