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An 88-year-old Longview woman froze to death in an outdoor courtyard of her Alzheimer’s care center early Friday morning, and her outraged family wants to know how her death could have happened.

“We don’t understand why the doors (to the courtyard) weren’t locked at night during this freezing weather,” said Dawn Johnson, the daughter of Norma Jeannette Sheldon. “We entrusted them with her care. The whole reason she was there was that my dad is 89 years old and couldn’t take care of her anymore. We thought we were doing the right thing entrusting her to them.”

The state Department of Health and Social Services is investigating the death as part of its oversight of nursing homes and care facilities, officials confirmed Monday.

A nurse at the Canterbury Gardens Alzheimer’s Care facility initially told Don Sheldon that it appeared his wife died of a heart attack, though the nurse did also mention the cold weather, he said. Sheldon was found outside by Canterbury staff at 1:18 a.m., when it was 28 degrees, according to the Cowlitz County Corner’s Office. Don Sheldon wasn’t called until 3:30 a.m., he said Monday.

The family later learned from the coroner that the cause of death was hypothermia, Johnson said.

They haven’t heard anything from the nursing home since Johnson called to say she’d pick up her mother’s things, she said Monday afternoon. Early Monday evening, though, a spokeswoman from Koelsch Senior Communities said they had reached out to the family.

“We just want to express (that) we’re very sorry this tragedy occurred,” spokeswoman Diane Craft said. “Our hearts go out the family ... and we’re working closely with the Department of Health and Social Services in our initial research into the incident.”

Craft could not comment on policies at Canterbury Gardens regarding access to the enclosed courtyard at night or in cold weather. She said the company, founded in Kelso, always makes patients and their families a priority. The Canterbury Gardens facility, licensed for 72 beds, is one of four retirement or nursing homes the Olympia-based company operates in Cowlitz County.

While the Canterbury Gardens building is secure so that residents can’t leave, the doors to the courtyard are open and accessible from the Alzheimer’s wing, Johnson said. Her mother had fallen out in the courtyard twice before and also was known to move around a lot a night, so she’s puzzled why workers didn’t lock the doors during the recent cold snap.

“They should have know this was a pattern, that something like this could happen,” she said.

“That’s why we pay $5,000 a month — for them to look after her,” Don Sheldon said.

The family was told that Sheldon was in her bed at the 11 p.m. bed check, but Johnson has her doubts because she said it was rare for her mother to sleep in her bed, often sleeping in a chair in the commons area. There’s no report of the midnight bed check, Johnson said.

Sheldon has suffered from Alzheimer’s dementia for six years and lived at the Canterbury for nearly three years, her family said. Aside from the dementia, she was “healthy as a horse” and family members just visited her on Tuesday, Johnson said.

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After his wife fell in the courtyard, Don Sheldon raised concerns, and his wife was moved closer to the main nursing station, Johnson said. Since then, though, she had been moved further back in the wing.

Don Sheldon said the nurses and aides were “marvelous” when dealing directly with his wife, but he’s still angry and confused about how on duty staff failed to stop her from going outside on such a cold night.

“I feel so sorry for the people involved,” he said. “I’m at mad them, too, but I do feel sorry for them.”

“The real tragedy of this is they knew she’d gone out there before,” he said. “It’s unbelievable, isn’t it.”

Longview police responded to the call Friday morning and the investigation continues, though there’s no sign of foul play, Detective Sgt. John Reeves said Monday. State officials also were notified because the death took place in a nursing home, he said.

State DSHS investigators will talk with staff and look at facility protocols to identify what happened and whether there are things to correct, said Bill Moss, Assistant Secretary of the Aging and Long-term Support Administration.

It’s far too early in this investigation to comment on the outcome, but the state can assign penalties and fines if officials find standards were violated. In extreme cases, a facility can lose its license, Moss said.

Sheldon’s family spent Monday organizing her funeral.

The Sheldons have lived in Longview since the 1940s and were fixtures in town, Johnson said. Norma Sheldon was an active volunteer, working at election polls, attending Democratic caucus meetings and working with the Longview Christian Women’s Club. She also shared some of Don Sheldon’s spotlight during his popular “Mr. Magic” shows around town, sometimes serving as his assistant. One performance included putting her in a phone booth and “piercing” her with 40 broom handles and a sword, according to Daily News archives.

“She was a lovely lady,” Johnson said, her voice heavy with tears. “She was a wonderful wife and mother.”

After the funeral, though, the family wants answers.

“We don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” Johnson said. “That’s the bottom line. We want to do whatever to prevent this from happening again.”

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The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

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