By Julie Anderson
Baby boomers have many reasons to move their parents to a nursing home or assisted living facility. It's undoubtedly a time of great apprehension for both child and parent. When I ask older people what they fear most about moving into a facility, many tell me it's the chance a staff member will abuse them physically, emotionally or yes, even sexually.
As an investigative journalist, I am especially proud of the work I have done to make others aware of the abuse of our elderly. Over the years I learned two things. One, there are really great nursing homes and assisted living facilities with some of the nicest, hardest-working people you'll ever meet. Two, there are some really questionable people who manage to get hired despite background checks.
And there are well-meaning but underpaid and undertrained employees that are just not equipped to handle the challenges that elderly people present. That means you, as the child, have the responsibility to visit your parents often and open your eyes to what's going on in the facility.
After reading hundreds of maltreatment and neglect of care reports over more than a dozen years, I can tell you, without a doubt, that staff members- on duty as you read this - are doing any or all of the following: yelling at a resident, pushing or pulling at them too hard, taking away their food as they try to eat it, ignoring their repeated requests for a simple cup of water , giving them too little or too much medicine, giving them the wrong medicine, leaving them sitting on a toilet while they tend to someone else, refusing to change their diapers, forgetting to tend a bedsore and sexually touching them when no one is nearby.
While working on an investigation years ago I actually saw staff take trays away from residents as they tried to eat. They told them dinner was over. It broke my heart. One day I sat with a woman who ate very slowly. She was bone thin. I had visited her for a number of weeks and knew she would eat if you helped her and talked gently to her while she picked at her food. That day I counted 12 bites of food during the so-called half hour dinner time. She was just about to take a spoonful of pudding when the staff member grabbed the utensil out of her hand, took the tray, dumped the food, and while looking at me said, "She never eats much."
I learned about the alarming rate of dehydration and food deprivation after meeting two of the finest elder abuse attorneys in the business today: Mark Kosieradzki and Joel Smith. Yes, they make money suing nursing homes but they have a passion for protecting those who cannot protect themselves. To show their dedication they have created a website you absolutely must visit. www.mn-nursinghomeabuse.com pulls together every resource you will need before and during the time your loved one is in a nursing home. Joel Smith says he created the site because ignorance is not bliss. He says, "We have to have as much knowledge as possible."
The site focuses on dignity, truth and respect. It is user-friendly allowing even those with just basic computer skills to learn about abuse and neglect, how to identify it and how to report it. There are nursing home resources including: complaint forms, rights of Minnesota nursing home residents and links to Minnesota's Long -Term Care Ombudsman, Minnesota ElderCare Rights Alliance, Board on Aging and the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The site also lists past problems with some of the state's largest nursing home providers.
More often than not the decision regarding a nursing home comes after a crisis, a time family is least capable of thorough research. The site gives you the ability to conveniently search a nursing home's inspection history. Smith says the intention is to help folks in an acute crisis moment.
Kosieradzki and Smith have seen it all during their careers fighting elder abuse. As baby boomers themselves they know we have to be as vigilant as ever. Kosieradzki says there is heightened public awareness about problems in nursing homes but because his cases require him and Smith to dig deep into facilities financing and operations they learn what the facilities often hope to hide. Kosieradzki says it is critical family visit their parents often. "It's a squeaky wheel that gets greased," he says. "If we are there and visiting our loved ones they know we are watching. That makes a difference. When people get overworked they will start cutting corners. If they know they are being watched that is the last place they will cut."
Kosieradzki says bedsores are the canary in the coal mine. He says pressure sores are avoidable and if you see a report that shows a facility has a lot of bed sore issues it likely means they don't have enough staff to take care of people. He says to check the turnover rate of staff. He believes there is a direct correlation between staff turnover and quality of care. He says stressed employees do bad things because the patient becomes the enemy.
- The smell test. If you walk into a facility and it reeks like urine there are likely not enough staff employed. Demand to talk to a supervisor and know why it stinks.
- Make a point of getting to know the staff. Introduce yourself by name. Get the staff members' names including those of the nurses, nurses' aides and social workers.
- Create an email paper trail when possible, starting with a quick note thanking the staff for taking time to get your loved one settled in.
To get an idea of a home's history, go to the Minnesota Department of Health and look at what state health inspectors have found. http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/fpc/directory/surveyapp/provcompsAtect.cfm
There is also a group called the Elder Rights Alliance http://www.eldercarerights.org
And there is an ombudsman for older Minnesotans. The toll-free number is 1-800-657-3591. In the metro call (651) 431-2555.
One final thought. While it's easy to smell urine and see if meals are being taken away, it's not always easy to spot concerns in a facility that looks beautiful. Fancy furniture and designer drapes can lull you into believing you're placing your mom or dad into a fantastic facility. You might be but do not get suckered into thinking the money put into 'pretty' will be spent on hiring quality staff. Do just as much homework for the fancy facilities as the plain ones.
Fellow baby boomers we must do better because we are next. If we don't demand improvements to make all nursing homes and assisted living facilities high quality we will be left wondering how on earth we ended up in a maltreatment or neglect of care report.