Opinion: Georgia needs resources, time to boost nursing home staff

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Most Americans want to live out their old age in their own homes enjoying family and their community. Families want their loved ones at home, too, and so they step up and help the older adult with driving to doctors’ appointments, preparing meals, doing housework, giving medications and providing oversight to keep their family members safe.

When the older adult needs help with bathing, dressing, going to the bathroom, or eating, families often provide the care until they get worn out. Studies show that older adults or their families choose nursing home placement when the physical or cognitive decline causes a need for caregiving that is more than the family can handle. An article in the Gerontologist reported that a longitudinal study showed that caregivers’ reasons for placement included: a.) the need for more skilled care, (65%); b.) the caregiver’s health, (49%); c.) the patients’ dementia-related behaviors, (46%); and d.) the need for more assistance, 23%). Most families make the decision for nursing home placement because they just can’t provide the care that their loved ones need.

President Biden’s administration has a proposed staffing ratio aimed at improving the care in nursing homes. This initiative is well-intentioned, but it will have unintended consequences that the public needs to be aware of given the vital role of nursing homes.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The truth is that there is a serious staffing shortage in nursing homes across the nation. We are already seeing nursing homes limit admissions because of the inadequate number of staff. If the Biden administration staffing ratio is implemented now, more nursing homes will be forced to limit admissions. This will mean that when families need a nursing home, they’ll have to take whichever home has an opening, even if it is a county or two away from where they live. That will likely limit visits from families, and we know that the number-one thing that residents in nursing homes want is visits from family members.

We need to address the staffing crisis first and then consider staffing ratio mandates. The proposed mandate has an RN-to-resident ratio that will be virtually impossible to meet because Georgia’s nursing homes currently have one of the lowest RN-to-resident ratios in the country. We need help on the federal and state level to slow the mandate until we can implement plans to recruit and retain RNs for long-term care.

Currently, individuals who want to go to nursing school can’t get in because we don’t have enough teachers. We need a plan for recruiting nurse teachers. One possible solution is to increase the pay of nurse teachers so we can have more teachers. Another is working with the Georgia Board of Nursing to improve access to clinical sites for meeting training requirements. Georgia relies on LPNs for long-term care and perhaps we can increase support and incentives for LPNs to pursue their RN degrees.

This past year, Gov. Brian Kemp increased the funding for nursing homes and that’s vital for homes to be able to pay enough to attract and retain staff. We need to do all we can to fortify nursing homes because we need to ensure they are there when skilled care is needed.

We need to ask our federal legislators to put the brakes on the proposed staffing ratios and we need an innovative plan here in Georgia for improving long-term care staffing levels. We all need to thank and support staff in nursing homes who provide quality care and compassion to our elders.

Ginny Helms is the president of LeadingAge Georgia, an association that supports nonprofit and other mission-based organizations that provide housing and services to older adults.