Opinion: Ga. nursing home workers need more support

FILE - In this March 18, 2021, file photo, Mary Claire Lane, 86, left, a resident at Hellenic Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in Canton, Mass., shares a hug with her daughter Anne Darling, of Attleboro, Mass., right, during a visit at the nursing home, in Canton. Nursing homes and other elderly residences battered by COVID-19 are easing lockdown-like restrictions more than a year into the pandemic. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
FILE - In this March 18, 2021, file photo, Mary Claire Lane, 86, left, a resident at Hellenic Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in Canton, Mass., shares a hug with her daughter Anne Darling, of Attleboro, Mass., right, during a visit at the nursing home, in Canton. Nursing homes and other elderly residences battered by COVID-19 are easing lockdown-like restrictions more than a year into the pandemic. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Credit: Steven Senne

Credit: Steven Senne

For a number of years, I served as a judge for the Ms. Georgia Nursing Home Beauty Pageant. One by one, finalists came into a room with six judges and spent a few minutes telling us what they did for fun, what gave them purpose and meaning, how they engaged with residents and staff, and generally what life was like for them in the community where they lived.

These residents, all winners from their own community’s pageant, lit up as they told us about life in the nursing home. They commonly said that they moved in because of health problems and the inability to live on their own. They often said they didn’t want to move into a nursing home but they adjusted and they thrived. They said they loved outings, BINGO, helping other residents, cookouts and other activities that gave them a sense of community and they loved interacting with staff. The nursing home was their home, their community.

During the pandemic, caring, compassionate staff worked hard to be there for the residents when family members couldn’t visit. Relationships flourished and helped residents get through this trying time.

The media coverage about inadequate care in nursing homes shows that we need to be proactive in shoring up care in long-term care.

Ginny Helms, President and CEO of LeadingAge Georgia
Ginny Helms, President and CEO of LeadingAge Georgia

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Staff shortages are the biggest threat to quality care. We need to recognize that working in a nursing home is hard work and staff make so little they often have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet. We are losing people to other employers that pay higher wages. We expect the staffing shortage to become worse in nursing homes if we aren’t able to keep up with the pay of other industries.

We must reimburse nursing homes at a rate that allows them to pay a livable wage and benefits for their staff. Medicaid is the primary payer source for nursing homes and the rate that is paid needs to be increased to allow better pay for workers. Many employers are moving to a $15 per hour rate and we need to move in that direction for staff in long-term care if we are to keep adequate staffing levels.

We also have to create clear pathways for staff in long-term care to further their education and have opportunities for career growth so we can keep people in this line of work. We need to create environments where staff are appreciated and want to work.

LeadingAge Georgia members who provide nursing home care are mission-driven, primarily not-for-profit and it shows in the quality of care in their communities. Each of them will tell you we have to shore up staffing. We need to take steps now because quality staffing equals quality care.

Ginny Helms is president of LeadingAge Georgia, an association of not-for-profit and other housing and services providers for older adults.

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