Moving a loved one into a nursing home can be a stressful experience to say the least. It’s not unusual for family members to be worried about the quality of care their loved ones receive. In fact, such worries may continue for years into a stay.
It may feel strange to entrust strangers with the care of your loved ones, but there are things you can do — beyond paying top dollar for the best facility around — to advocate for your loved ones as well as for nursing home residents in general.
Below are five of the best ways you can become an advocate for your loved one as you consider moving them into a nursing home.
1. Do Your Research
More than 1.4 million Americans currently live in nursing homes. However, as the elderly population in the United States has grown in recent years, the number of people moving into nursing homes has remained flat.
Thanks to advances in at-home care as well as shifts in attitude about elderly care — including some high-profile examples of nursing home abuse — fewer senior citizens are opting to move into nursing homes.
According to a recent study, 550 nursing homes in the U.S. permanently closed their doors between 2015 and 2019, and the number of homes closing each year has been on the rise.
Still, this trend doesn’t negate the real need that some families have to find a permanent home for aging loved ones. If anything, it makes finding the right home all the more challenging.
If you’ve yet to find a home for your loved one, the first step in the journey is to do your research. This stage is critical, takes time, and really cannot be overlooked.
Some tips for making the research easier:
- Avoid hiring a company or self-proclaimed expert to find the right nursing home for your aging loved one. Such services often have conflicts of interest, as they may be funded by nursing homes to recruit new residents to certain facilities and may not truly have your family member’s best interest in mind.
- Use the Medicare Nursing Home Compare website to compare nursing homes, hospitals, and other health care providers. Pay attention to the star-rating system, which ranks nursing homes on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with special attention given to health inspections, staffing, and physical and clinical care quality.
- Consider what you and your family need a nursing home to provide, and then eliminate options based on whether or not such needs will be met. For example, set a maximum distance you’d be willing to travel, then look at homes within that distance. Other questions to ask include: Does your loved one require religious services? Do they need hospice care? What about dementia services? Physical therapy? Any overriding need should be a focus of your research.
- Talk to friends or colleagues. Perhaps they have gone through a similar situation and can offer recommendations and tips. Nursing homes want your business, so of course they will work hard to play up the quality of their own services. Their clients and customers, however, may not have such loyalties.
- Visit the home. Even if it’s far away, it’s a good idea to visit the facility, talk to the staff, and see for yourself what kind of home they can provide for your loved one. In these situations, your gut instinct is worth paying attention to. Don’t ignore that nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right.
2. Get to Know the Staff
Being on a first-name basis with nursing home staff members can pay dividends in terms of ensuring a positive experience for you, your loved one, and your family. They can be a point of contact should problems arise, and they can provide a window into the state of care at the facility.
If you’re friendly with staff then it’s more likely they’ll also be friendly with you. More importantly, they’ll be more likely to share information about how your loved one is doing.
Use this opportunity to share the story of your loved one to staff members. You can use a resident assessment or care plan to talk about your loved one’s personal habits and quirks, taking time to stress what they are like — including their flaws — and how deeply you care about them.
Another nice gesture is to write thank you notes for staff members who may have to deal with a short or impatient loved one. The most important thing is to be open and honest, as everyone involved — from patient to caregiver — is, at the end of the day, a human being.
3. Visit Often
How often you can visit probably depends on how close you are to the nursing home, but you should try to visit as often as you can. Not only will frequent visits make your loved one happy, it will also help you keep tabs on staff and their operations. When planning visits, don’t always visit at the same time, as you want to catch staff in their normal state — not necessarily when they have time to prepare.
More often than not, it’s up to family members to uncover instances of neglect or abuse. Residents, unfortunately, are not always in the right state of mind to be able to articulate mistreatment, so it may be up to you to look for signs of nursing home abuse.
Be observant and make sure the treatment you see is consistent with what you were promised.
4. Observe and Document
There are a few ways to document the state of care in a nursing home. Attending care meetings and taking diligent notes is a good way to keep a written record of the care your loved one is receiving. Note any injuries or illnesses they might have sustained, and if you can, document them with photographs.
Most nursing home patients have some sort of care or treatment plan. It’s your duty to stay on top of that plan and to advocate on behalf of your loved one. If they have trouble speaking for themselves, make sure you communicate their interests as best you can.
Many times, negligence stems from poor communication. The line of communication between patient, doctor, and caregiver can and should be aided by your presence — because they don't know the patient like you do, as a family member.
Some signs of neglect or poor quality care include:
- Unanswered call lights
- Unattended patients
- Rude caregivers
- Bed sores, bruises, or other injuries
- Staff members refusing to leave you alone with the resident
5. Take Action
If you’re concerned about the quality of care in a nursing home, contact other patients’ family members. If there’s a family council, join it. If there isn’t, consider forming one. Families of nursing home residents have a legal right to hold regular meetings and advocate for improved services for their loved ones.
If your loved one’s nursing home accepts Medicare and Medicaid payments, they are legally obligated to provide a meeting space, respond to concerns raised by the council, and to cooperate with its activities.
If you suspect or have observed nursing home neglect or abuse, there are a few steps you can take to report and, hopefully, fix the problem:
- Ombudsmen: Contact a Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP), Citizen Advocacy Group (CAG), or long-term care resource. Ombudsman serve as neutral advocates for nursing home residents and are available free of charge in all 50 states.
- Eldercare Locator. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) coordinates care and services between seniors and local programs. The Eldercare Locator is a platform that can be used by anyone.
- National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). The NCEA is an advocacy group through which concerned families can report abuse, spread awareness, and connect with local services.
- You can also try contacting your local Adult Protective Service or social services.
- Take legal action.
Ensuring the health and safety of your loved one who lives in a nursing home is no easy feat — it takes time and requires due diligence. By embracing the strategies outlined above, you are putting yourself and your family in a better position, knowing you have done your best to advocate for your loved one.