In recent months, I’ve been a frequent visitor to hospitals, nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities. My mother’s recent declining health is not something I anticipated so suddenly or planned for and I, along with my siblings and my father, have found ourselves on a fast track to learn the complicated navigation of the healthcare system.  

  We’ve learned a great deal about the alphabet soup of Medicare out of necessity, but mostly we’ve learned a lot about the people who are caring for our loved one. We’ve watched and listened to the ones on the front line of patient care. The ones who take care of the most basic human needs. The ones who feed, bathe and help people to the bathroom when they can’t do it for themselves.

  Through observation and conversations (remember, I’m a newspaper gal who by nature asks a lot of questions) I’ve learned things that are harsh realities for those who have parents or other loved ones who will likely someday end up in the same position my family and I find ourselves in.

  Here’s what I’ve observed in a very short time:

 •There are two kinds of people working in skilled care and nursing facilities: Those who have an immediately recognizable compassion for humankind, particularly the elderly, and those who do not. The latter are working in the wrong profession, but they are out there and sadly, they are responsible for your loved one’s care. I’m sure there’s a special place in Heaven for the good ones, the ones who seem to have limitless patience and the ability to make our parents and grandparents smile even in the most difficult of circumstances. Show your appreciation to those folks - you will know the good ones immediately. Thank them. Compliment them to their supervisors. Appreciate the fact they do their jobs as much out of a sense of compassion as for the pay.

 •Healthcare professionals in long-term care settings are overworked. Some of them leave their shift exhausted physically and the ones who truly care about people leave mentally exhausted as well, knowing they didn’t have them time to do more for their patients. Some of the problem is with a facility’s management, some of it is difficulty in finding and retaining staff, some of it is that as in all jobs people are pulling more than their share of work because of those who come to work for a paycheck and not to make a difference.

 •Nurses are spending too much of their time on documentation and paper shuffling than  caring for patients. I had an RN tell me last week she estimates spending at least half of each shift doing paperwork. She lamented that she entered the profession to help people and while she said she enjoys her job, it is far too centered on recording information rather than patient care and comfort.

 •Be reasonable but not lax in your expectations of care. The call light won’t always be answered immediately when your loved one has a need to be tended to. But if you are getting reports of slow and no response, don’t accept poor care. Advocate for your loved one. Communicate your concerns to staff.

 •Patients with family members who show up and are actively involved often get more personal attention. Be present. Ask questions about personal care, diet, medication management and medical care. I took notice last weekend as I pulled into my choice of parking spots in the visitor’s lot at the facility where my mother is being cared for. At any given time during my comings and goings, there were fewer than 10 cars in the lot in the 100-bed facility. As I roamed the hallways, I saw resident after resident sitting alone in their rooms and in hallways. My heart broke for them and the obvious looks of loneliness in their eyes. Don’t assume that you aren’t needed to be present for our loved one. I can assure you they need you there both for the emotional support you lend, as well as being their prime patient advocate.

 •When things don’t seem right, don’t wait for them to get better. Talk to the administrator of the facility and if that doesn’t produce results there is an ombudsman whose role it is to identify, investigate and resolve complaints. Their goal is to improve the quality of life for residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The number can be accessed through the Kentucky Department of Health and Human Services.

  We owe our frail elderly much more than they sometimes get in their final days on earth. If you have a loved-one who is a resident of an elderly care facility, make it your priority to ensure they are receiving the care they deserve.

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