Nursing home blues

Grandma’s care needs a new discussion

By Morgan Driskell

Being in a nursing home is considered a normal part of life: Grandmother is simply too old to be left home alone, and paying for her to receive care in a healthy environment with peers can only be beneficial.

But what is really happening in nursing homes?

With the recent introduction of House Bill 72 in Georgia, it is time for a conversation about how to protect and care for our elders and disabled adults. The Georgia Council on Aging reported a 65% increase in reports of abuse in nursing homes from 2008-2012, and the state responded with House Bill 78 in 2013, offering more protection for elderly and disabled persons. There are several provisions being added this year through HB 72, including allowing information obtained through inspections of facilities to be used in trial, as well as defining more clearly who is responsible for reporting abuse.

The bill shows that Georgia citizens are concerned about expanding legal protection of elders and disabled adults. But it also raises deeper questions for our geriatric care system about what is humane.

I am a volunteer and a student, putting in many hours of work in the hospice care divisions of several Georgia nursing homes and a long-term care facility. I am not enmeshed in this world yet, and things that others with more seniority take for granted, I still question.

I’ll give you an example: my instructor took my class into a patient’s room. This patient was bed bound, as both of his legs had been amputated, and he lay in his own feces and urine, slouched over, with debris around his mouth. It was almost midday, but no one had been in his room since early morning. My instructor exposed his genitals, moved him around, and showed us different care techniques. During this time, the patient showed obvious discomfort, even mumbling “no” several times. There were eight people standing there, using his body for their own purposes as if his consent was irrelevant. Ultimately, it was irrelevant, as it took my voice to make his heard. This frightened me, as it should you.

Comparing the way we care for two main population groups that are considered to lack autonomy — children and the elderly — is instructive. While childcare providers are required to provide nurturing environments that conform to the highest standards of hygiene and safety, the elderly are left largely to the mercy of individual caretakers and institutional settings. Nurses’ aides are taught to be patient and told how to handle various scenarios. But, in the real world, what is taught is not what is being done. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that in many fields, the job you do is simply not taught to you in school. Nursing in all forms is very much like this. However, at what point does “I have eight other patients and other tasks to do” become neglect?

Too often, geriatric work is just too short of workers. This problem will only worsen as a large portion of our population ages. According to the 2010 US Census, 20% of the total population in 2050 will be 65 years and older. There is much debate regarding who should be responsible. I argue that we as a society and state are collectively responsible and should be addressing the issues of geriatric care now. Should we be okay with people being left in a facility where the lack of care compromises the quality of life?

There is room for improvement, not only with legislation, but through an informed and concerned community. Elder abuse occurs in many forms, as addressed by House Bill 72. It’s wonderful that our state government is taking note of the abuse that and wants to penalize the people responsible. However, I believe that action should be taken before abuse occurs. We need to question why abuse is occurring and at what levels.

For this to happen, our attitude towards geriatric care needs reform. The elderly are regarded as financial and physical burdens and are too often taken advantage of. I am advocating for a society in which the realities of end of life are not regarded with fear or avoided, but embraced — one where people receive the level of care that they deserve without discrimination.

Morgan Driskell is a senior at Georgia State University from Carrollton majoring in sociology and studying to be a nurses’ aide.

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