For me, as for most, the holidays are about spending time with family and feeling grateful for what you have. It’s no different for families with loved ones in nursing homes who just want to know their mother or father is safe and well cared for.
But the sad reality is too many nursing home residents are not receiving the dignity and quality of care they deserve. I should know. Before becoming a registered nurse, I worked as a certified nursing assistant in a local nursing home for three years. It was the worst job I ever had.
I got into the healthcare profession because I wanted to help people. I am also a history buff and was excited to hear the stories of elderly residents who served our country through some of its toughest times. But I left emotionally crushed, physically exhausted and completely frustrated with a system that reduced our greatest generation to a life with no dignity or control.
I worked in a locked dementia unit and was responsible for 12 residents over an eight-hour shift. The foundation of caregiving is personal interaction. But to have to shower, feed, toilet, change the linens and have everyone in bed after dinner made you feel more like a machine than a caregiver. With that mad rush, each resident received about 1½ hours of hands-on care in a 24-hour period. And for $12 an hour, there is no way you can get enough staff at that rate and complete all your tasks in the time given.
When you are stretched that thin, there is barely enough time to cover the basics, never mind the simple act of sitting down and having a human conversation. At times, my residents had astonishing moments of lucidity and would say things with an amazing amount of relevance that made you question yourself and the unfairness of the situation you were all in.
Not surprisingly, with such workloads and low wages, turnover was a chronic issue that further exacerbated an already terrible situation. If a fellow CNA called out, which happened frequently, we would be forced to absorb the care for those extra residents.
My story is not unique. In homes across Rhode Island and the country, the same scenario is playing out. Too many nursing homes are owned by large, for profit companies who care more about their profit margin than the quality care their residents receive. Without being held accountable to better staffing standards, nursing home operators have no incentive to change.
Rhode Island is the only state in New England that doesn’t require a minimum number of hours of direct care per resident during a 24-hour period. That is truly shocking, especially when you consider that our state has the highest proportion of adults aged 85 and older in the nation. And we all know the demand for long-term care is only going to increase as the Baby Boomer generation enters the long-term care system. This a crisis our lawmakers need to address today.
Solving this care crisis begins with raising wages for front line caregivers and making nursing home jobs an attractive career option for young people. We also need to pass laws that require that every nursing home resident receives at least 4.1 hours of direct care each day, a figure most experts support. But to get there, we need our lawmakers, including our own Rep. Mattiello, to first acknowledge this crisis exists and to treat it with the urgency it demands.
Let’s start there, and perhaps in holidays to come, families can rest easier knowing their loved ones in nursing homes are receiving the care they have earned after a lifetime of caring for others.
Anthony Manzi is a registered nurse and a resident of Cranston.