Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Long on Memories, Short on Decent Care


During the holiday season, many of us embrace some form of family tradition as we gather for annual celebrations. Maybe it will be using great-grandma's recipe for giblet gravy or putting that special star atop the tree or lighting a candle for grandpa who passed away a few years ago.
My own family will head to my mom's house to celebrate, because her home really belongs to all of us, at least in our hearts. Grandma is the family matriarch, the living historian who reminds us of past holidays and what makes us a family. We listen to her stories and heed the lessons they teach us.

And yet, right here in southeastern Michigan, in about 300 licensed long-term care facilities and in countless unlicensed and unregulated facilities, thousands of seniors who are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers will be forgotten -- and in too many cases, neglected or abused. Some, left for months with little or no stimulation or who have been overmedicated to keep them quiet, will slip deeper into dementia.

This forgotten phenomenon is of great concern to those of us who value our aging population and who advocate on their behalf. We continue to be shocked at the neglect and abuse that continues in nursing homes, homes for the aged and foster-care facilities for seniors.

We are equally shocked that a population of aging baby boomers -- an unprecedented number of citizens moving toward the possibility of life in these same facilities -- is not paying greater attention to what is happening with senior care.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that as of July 1, 2005, there were 78.2 million baby boomers. By the year 2030, 57.8 million of them will be age 65.

Our community should be deeply concerned about the staffing ratio in long-term care facilities; often they carry a 1-to-12 ratio of staff to residents. More often than not, staff members are not tending to residents' most-personal needs, such as changing soiled undergarments, providing comforting baths or tending to open bedsores. Many times, residents who cannot feed themselves will go hungry.

During the holiday season, many of us will be overcome with the giving spirit -- the urge to find another human being to help. Often, we are drawn to the faces of children.

But this year, perhaps we should focus at least part of our attention on the forgotten population. We should make the mental leap and consider the volume of baby boomers who will be considering long-term care in the near future. Will there be adequate facilities? Will staffing laws be changed to better meet the needs of individuals who cannot help themselves?

Take a moment to visit a senior whose family is no longer valuing the gift of age. Consider spending an hour every other week simply reading to a nursing home resident, or call your grandmother or grandfather to thank them for all that they have done.

Equally important, begin to advocate for change in laws now designed to minimally protect the most vulnerable in our society and generously line the pockets of corporations that have begun to purchase dozens of nursing homes.

We can fix what is happening in these long-term care facilities. We can do it for the seniors who live in these facilities today, or for the baby boomers who will be living there tomorrow.

HELEN KOZLOWSKI-HICKS is executive director of Citizens for Better Care, the 38-year-old nonprofit organization that holds most of the state's contracts to provide ombudsman and elder abuse training. She also is an Advisory Board member for the Area Agency on Aging, 1B. Contact her at 313-832-6387.

Abridged for E.A. =>>

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