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WENDY ELLIOTT: Long-term care can be bedlam

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network

More years ago than I can count I went with my mother to visit her mom in the nursing home where she lived. I remember the locked ward was kind of scary and any attempt to converse was impossible.

When we got back into the car my mother grabbed the steering wheel passionately and said, “if I ever get like that shoot me.” When her turn came those words haunted me.

Fortunately, my father left her well fixed. She could afford a private room and private home care services delivered every day in a for-profit nursing home, where the staff were constantly stretched. Still and all, that desiccated room was a difficult place to be.

Visiting you got to see who never had visitors, who called upon the Almighty long and loudly and whose personality was transformed in the grip of Alzheimer’s. You also learned that residents wore 12-hour diapers and got a bath once a week.

Once I was distressed enough at the patient/staff ratio I got in touch with a provincial representative. A day or two later I was told the ratio complied with requirements under legislation. Never mind the empty hallways and unheard pleas.

My mother passed on four years ago, so I was happy last week to read that maybe change is in the works. The current Liberal government has been told by the three-person expert panel it established that “overstressed” nursing homes are not capable of meeting the complex needs of today’s residents. There is no question that staffing needs to be improved at long-term care facilities. The panel’s first recommendation is that staff are in need of immediate support. The report called on the Nova Scotia government to hire long-term care assistants as soon as possible to help full-time staff – if such staff can be found.

The panel was set up by Health and Wellness Minister Randy Delorey in September after media reports about one deadly case of bedsores, which raised serious issues about the quality of care in these facilities. More than 150 cases of bedsores were found in a follow-up.

“Government accepts the intent of all the recommendations and will work toward implementing them based on the timelines suggested by the panel,” said Delorey in a release. “Government is already working on many of the recommendations. This shows me we are on the right track to making improvements in long-term care.”

How long is change going to take? We have 6,900 nursing home beds and 900 residential care facility beds in Nova Scotia that serve about 11,000 people each year. Increased staffing was sorely needed four years ago based on my personal observations.

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union has said clearly it wants to see legislated hours of care. Others are calling for higher wages for nursing home staff. Meanwhile, our opposition parties say the panel could be giving the province an umbrella to hide under before doing anything to improve funding.

Last fall NDP leader Gary Burrill suggested it would cost something like $60 million more a year to improve nursing home care. He was certainly right in saying, "we need to mandate staff-to-patient ratios so that there can be a way of addressing the fact that people in nursing homes today need more care than nursing home residents did just a few years ago."

Proper wound care, patient and staff safety, and the appropriate care and protection of the vulnerable persons who inhabit our province’s long-term care homes is vital. It is important both to patients at the end of their lives and the peace of mind of family members.

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