Dr. Fred Eichelman: Nursing Home Reform Needed
The phrase “Waiting Room For God” was a phrase coined by the late humorist Jonathan Winters for nursing and retirement homes. There are groups to protect the elderly from abuse and mishandling in these homes and sadly there is much of that going on everywhere. I have received horror stories not just from my home state of Virginia, but from many others as well.
This article is not meant to distract from the many well-meaning homes, some of which provide their clients the comforts of their original domains. However, even the best of these homes can become the worst when there are concerns with money, staff shortages, and a lack of training members which can cause terrible problems. Even the finest seem to have needless deaths, and that was most apparent during the Covid Pandemic in 2020.
At the height of the pandemic, possibly no group of people were more affected than elderly in nursing homes. We may never know the extent of cases of abuse or neglect that occurred during this time when family members weren’t allowed to intervene. One of the best solutions for all nursing homes problems is family advocacy. When that’s gone basically all that’s left are “strangers” taking care of our most vulnerable citizens day and night…
During the pandemic the deaths and instances of abuse or neglect that occurred can also be blamed on various state and local governments. There is no better example than when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered that Covid patients be put in nursing homes rather than hospitals. This was in spite of the fact that President Trump arranged for beds to be placed in local Federal buildings for the extra Covid patients, as well as arranging for a U.S. Hospital Ship to be utilized nearby. Instead, Cuomo mixed (young) Covid patients with vulnerable elderly people. The result was reportedly 4,100 elderly people died in those Cuomo nursing homes–yet he was continually lauded on major news networks for his “great work” during the pandemic.
People in nursing homes have been subject to abuse that is both physical and mental. The elderly in some cases have been subject to beatings, verbal insults and just plain neglect when needing their medications. Depression and loneliness has also been a major issue, which became a crisis during the pandemic when nursing home residents were denied visitation by family members. People with dementia weren’t able to understand “why” their family members stopped visiting them, they just felt the sadness of being left behind. That in itself is tragic.
Sadly, sometimes people with family members or friends in nursing homes are neglectful in regard to visitations or other forms of contact, with or without a Pandemic as an excuse…
This writer knows these things firsthand because my wife and I have been to a number of nursing homes, mainly conducting Bible studies. We have been told stories by residents who were afraid to say anything to employees for fear of being punished. My own family has had two situations ourselves that bore witness to the complaints.
The first was my mother-in-law. After her husband died she was suffering from memory loss. At the time my wife and I both worked as teachers so we moved her into a nearby nursing home. There we learned that using the excuse of “patient’s rights” she could tell them she was not hungry or did not need exercise or medication and they would leave her on her own. When we found out we hired a full time care giver to stay with her to ensure she received her food, exercise and medications.
The second was almost the death of this writer. I had to stay in a nursing home after recovering from an operation. Late at night they found it too time consuming to walk me to the bathroom. Against my wishes I was forced to have a catheter attached to me, which resulted in a very bad UT infection. As soon as I could get out of that place a qualified urologist removed the catheter and I was told it was too small and had disrupted my system to the point that my life was endangered.
My editor, Ann-Marie, also wanted to share her tragic story here:
In early 2020 my father’s Alzheimer’s disease progressed to the point that he and my mother, also with Alzheimer’s, had to be separated. The only place he was allowed to live was a lock-down facility but it was very nice place, one of the newest and ‘fanciest’ in town. Unfortunately this happened soon after the world locked down, too, so it meant my sister and I weren’t able to monitor his care. After a few months of strange phone calls about “falls” and “cuts and bruises” that we could do nothing about, hospice called one night to tell my sister and me that Dad was dying. They snuck us into the facility and what we found was absolutely shocking. The first thing we noticed before we even stepped in the room was the smell of feces and urine, which even in his dark room we could see on the carpet and on the floor of his bathroom. His clothes were on the floor of his closet–all of them–and they were soaked in urine. And then there was our father, equally shocking. He was skeletal with cuts on his face, bruises on his arms, and he was lying on a dirty bed. His teeth were gone and that’s when we notices trays of uneaten food in his room…The thing is, he didn’t die that night. After sitting with him an hour or so he sat straight up and started talking incoherently, his teeth gone. We calmed him down best we could, tried to find someone to help him, but both of us were too shell-shocked to yell at anyone. We wanted to, but even as I’m typing this I feel like I have Post Traumatic Shock Disorder…Early the next morning hospice called again and told us Dad was definitely dying. We went back and this time his room was spotless. They had him reclining in his favorite chair, covered with his (now clean) Navy blanket. The room smelled like ammonia. They knew….Months later when we were allowed to pick up his things we found Dad’s false teeth inside a Kleenex box. He was skeletal because he wasn’t able to chew his food…and no one helped him. I vowed that moment to buy a house and keep our Mother with me the rest of her life. And that’s exactly what my sister and I are doing now.
Especially after this pandemic we definitely need updated laws in every state to govern and monitor how nursing homes are being operated. Reform may be needed to ensure that only the most qualified people are hired. In Ohio, a bill called ‘Esther’s Law’ has been enacted in which cameras will be allowed in the rooms of each patient to assure that only the best care is being given. Perhaps this would be a good start to keep nursing staff accountable for their actions (or inaction), especially for patients who are completely incapacitated, helpless, and/or unable to speak for themselves anymore. Like Ann-Marie and Lisa’s father.