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Interview With Becky Kurtz, Jeanne Sher

Aired February 23, 2002 - 17:14   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Here's a sobering new statistic from a government report involving some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens. More than 91 percent of nursing homes lack adequate staff to properly take care of the patients in nursing homes.

The Health and Human Services Department report it found patients in these understaffed nursing homes were more likely to suffer from a variety of problems, such as bed sores, malnutrition, weight loss, dehydration, pneumonia, and serious blood born infections.

It's a serious concern that will only increase with time, given that the population of people aged 85 or older is expected to double to 8.9 million by the year 2030.

And for some insight into what all of this really means, we're joined now by two guests right here on my right. Becky Kurtz is the long-term care ombudsman for the State of Georgia. She's an advocate for nursing home residents.

Jeanne Sher is a former nursing home resident, and her husband had also been in a nursing home, and she helped take care of him before his death two years ago.

Thanks very much ladies for joining me. Jean, let's begin with you. In addition to helping to take care of your husband who stayed in a nursing home you, yourself, have also stayed at a nursing home, right. You no longer do. But at the time, what were your observations about whether indeed these nursing homes that you were exposed to were understaffed?

JEANNE SHER, FORMER NURSING HOME RESIDENT: I was in the nursing home because of an automobile accident, so I was there for rehabilitation, and I found that the same staff that was taking care of acute care patients were also taking care of patients who were coming into rehab.

WHITFIELD: So that they may have been overwhelmed?

SHER: They were overwhelmed, and really didn't know the difference between the kind of care these different people needed. And this was very important because people going into a nursing home for rehab need a special kind of care. They need good rehab people there, but the co-question of training for the staff is what's certainly important, and that we find in all the nursing homes, a question of - WHITFIELD: Did you feel like the care that you were receiving suffered because there didn't seem to be enough bodies in order to help?

SHER: I certainly do. I think that of course there weren't enough bodies, but staff were doing double jobs, and that's one of the things - many of the staff are overworked. There's no question about that, and so more staff is needed in order to take care of those people who are in these nursing homes.

WHITFIELD: Well, Becky, the report is indicating that this really is a widespread problem. What have you observed, even in the State of Georgia? Are you noticing that it seems to be a pretty significant widespread problem state to state?

BECKY KURTZ, LONG-TERM CARE OMBUDSMAN: It really is and not just in Georgia, nationwide is an issue. The report talked about nine out of 10 homes not having adequate staffing, and that's something that ombudsmen as resident advocate and problem solvers have been talking about for many years, and we're happy that it's finally getting some attention so that maybe some things can be done to address the problem.

WHITFIELD: In fact, some studies are indicating that the recommendation should be that there should be at least five or six residents per staff worker.

KURTZ: Right, this report in fact said that.

WHITFIELD: Is that reasonable? Is that a reasonable request.

KURTZ: We don't see facilities that have that kind of staffing. It would mean additional money. It would mean additional recruiting. It would mean keeping the people you have.

WHITFIELD: And is part of the problem training? Perhaps there aren't enough people who are interested or able to carry out this kind of work?

KURTZ: It's difficult to recruit people for this work. It's hard work. People make on average about $15,000 a year with doing very, very difficult work. So it's very difficult to get people into this work and keep them there, because they're not supported when they're there.

WHITFIELD: So, Jeanne, the Bush Administration acknowledges that this is a significant problem, but President Bush is not necessarily willing to push for more federal funds in order to solve the problem.

Instead, he has articulated that he's hoping that the industry itself will try to fix itself.

SHER: But the industry up until now has not been able to fix it, and since it's a national problem, it really has to be handled nationally so that first of all, that they recognize the fact that more staff is needed. Secondly, that they need to be better trained individuals and thirdly, that there has to be continuous training and supervision of the staff within the nursing home, in order for them to give the proper kind of care that's needed for people who are in the nursing homes. At its best, being in a nursing home is hard for any individual, and so when the person doesn't get the kind of personal care that they need, it makes it even harder.

WHITFIELD: And, Becky, the observations that Jeanne had about there not being enough staff workers, the report indicates that this problem has also led to a significant increase in misdiagnosis, perhaps, because people are suffering from, you know, various problems, whether it be bed sores to dehydration, et cetera, which alter or in some way impact the diagnosis that doctors have for them when treating them. So a lot of people are being mistreated, misdiagnosed.

KURTZ: That's true. In addition, part of the problem is that it's the aides. It's not just the nurses, but it's the aides, the people who haven't gone through nurse training, but are certified as aides, that are the bulk of the staff. And those are folks who don't have the time they need for basic care, to give basic care to help people have help with eating, to help people go to the bathroom, to help people with just daily activities and daily living they need to survive. That's really in long-term care, the crux of the problem is having enough time to do those services.

WHITFIELD: If the Bush Administration says it's going to be $7.6 billion that would be needed in order to beef up staffing, money that the Federal Government is not willing to commit, what is a solution? What are we going to do as we as a population continue to age and age very quickly in number?

SHER: Right, that's a very good question.

KURTZ: That's a very good question. Not only are we increasing in numbers, but the work force is not growing in that proportion. It's growing nine percent in the next 30 years, and you said more than double the aging population in that same time.

SHER: Right.

KURTZ: And women aren't choosing this as the only job. It's not just nursing and nursing care and teaching. Women are choosing lots of jobs. So our work force issue is a real serious one. Money is part of the issue, but it's not the whole issue. Some facilities do a really good job of helping their employees feel valued, getting input from the workers of what they're feeling and what they're finding with the people they are working with.

WHITFIELD: So, Jeanne, does it mean that we now have to explore alternative ways in which to care for our elderly?

SHER: I think we have to explore both ways. This is a national problem that really has to be handled. However, it has to be handled nationally. We have to look at the fact that the people who are taking jobs, these jobs on are people who really need continuous care, continuous training and continuous feeling that they're there to do a good job and they want to do a good job.

It's just that they don't have time to do all the work that has to be done for the patients in the nursing homes. So it has to be handled. It's a situation that just has to be handled at this particular time.

WHITFIELD: And certainly, no overnight solutions though.

SHER: No overnight.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks very much, Jeanne Sher and Becky Kurtz for joining me. Thank you very much.

SHER: Thank you.




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