TAMPA - Dixie Benschoter's powers of observation paid off this month.
She had grown familiar with the operational hum of Lakeshore Villas nursing home since 1999. Her mom had been there for eight years until dying in 2007, and her mother-in-law, Margaret Luna, now is a long-term patient there.
Over the past few weeks, there were grinds and clangs in the hum and that raised suspicions. No new patients showed up, beds remained empty and staff turnover churned no-stop.
On July 5, the 179-bed nursing home in Lutz confirmed her instincts, hand-delivering letters notifying residents the nursing home was closing and that residents there had a little more than a month to move out. The skilled nursing unit is shutting down mainly because a poor track record led federal authorities to terminate Medicaid and Medicare payments to the facility. Administrators said residents - about 132 of them - must find homes elsewhere within a month.
For many families, the stress of moving from familiar territory was compounded by the daunting task of finding another nursing home option.
"Folks can go into panic mode when something like this happens," said Patty Suarez, a spokeswoman for West Central Florida Agency on Aging.
Benschoter, suspicious for weeks, had a jump on the task because she already had begun a search for a new home for her mother-in-law. She had started calling around two days before official letters were hand-delivered to Lakeshore Villas nursing home patients.
Some nursing homes stepped up and immediately began accepting patients, she said, like The Nursing Center at University Village, which took her mother-in-law right away, along with a handful of other displaced residents.
"They are taking four from Lakeshore," Benschoter said.
Four relocated, 128 to go.
While it appears to be a daunting task, state health-care officials maintain there are enough beds available in the region for displaced Lakeshore Villas residents, many of whom suffer from dementia and other cognitive and memory disorders.
According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, Hillsborough County has 29 nursing homes, none of which is completely full, though a few are close. The county's nursing homes are operating at a capacity of about 88 percent.
That translates into about 260 beds available for Lakeshore Villas residents in Hillsborough County, the agency said.
Beds in adjacent counties also are available - 86 in Pasco and 399 in Pinellas, agency figures show.
"We believe there are plenty of beds," for Lakeshore Villas residents, said Molly McKinstry, the agency's deputy secretary of health quality assurance.
The agency, along with a variety of elderly advocate groups, will help residents relocate, she said, but ultimately it is up to them and their families to chose a home that is right for their needs.
The state provides a variety of information about nursing homes on the Agency for Health Care Administration website, ahca.myflorida.com. All inspections, deficiencies, fines and disciplinary actions are included. The website lists unique aspects of nursing homes, such as languages spoken and treatments offered.
"It's always a challenge when a facility closes," McKinstry said. "We go in ... and meet with families and residents who ask us for assistance. We want to make sure people have choices. We are closely monitoring this closure plan."
With 179 beds, Lakeshore is larger than the average nursing home in Florida. Seldom does one shut down, she said. "The last one," she said, "was two or three years ago."
The West Central Florida Agency on Aging also provides a help line, 1-800-96-ELDER. The help line, available between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, already is getting calls from relatives of Lakeshore Villas patients seeking help, Suarez said. Out-of-state callers can reach the help line by calling (813) 740-3888.
"We're in high alert now," she said. "Help line staffers are referring patients to other facilities where there are beds. They know the ins and outs of resources for seniors."
For some Lakeshore Villas patients and their families who moved fast, new homes already have been found.
Elsie Harch, 94, was moved out of Lakeshore Villas on Wednesday after a two-day search by her family, said Elsie's grandson, Joe Bamford. Elsie was taken via cab to Fairway Oaks Center near the University of South Florida golf course.
"I know that a few other (Lakeshore) residents are going there, too," he said.
"We were very fortunate," he said Wednesday morning as he packed up his grandmother's belongings and headed with her toward the door where the cab waited. "We have found a place. I'm incredibly grateful."
Checking out new nursing homes should be taken seriously by residents and families, said Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, an elderly advocate group in Tallahassee. He said a quarter of the 29 nursing homes in Hillsborough County are on a state watch list because of deficiencies.
Still, there are plenty of beds in good homes available, he said, in part because of all the options other than nursing homes now available for the elderly.
"Folks don't want to go into nursing homes," he said, "and the market is flush with options."
Options include staying home and utilizing home health-care programs, and community-based services and adult congregate living facilities that are less restrictive and offer a more home-like environment.
He said the shuttering of Lakeshore Villas is being felt far and wide across the state.
"I know that whenever a nursing home shuts down, it does send a rippling effect though the long-term-care industry," Lee said.
Lee said the closure shows federal health-care officials "are taking these horrific violations seriously."
"This closure, along with another one earlier this year - two in one year - is unprecedented," he said. "It does send a message that they really are going to keep an eye on nursing home quality to make sure residents are safe."