The Nurse Staffing Crisis: Why Aren’t Our Elders Receiving the Care They Need?

Elder care facilities in Southeast Minnesota, as shown by a recent series of interviews with Rochester nursing home CEOs, are facing their worst shortage of caregivers in decades.

According to nursing home management, the scarcity of nursing home staff is not unlike a drop seen in the 1990s when the tight job market dramatically tempered healthcare job growth.

But this time, the problem is compounded by something the healthcare industry has anticipated, however reluctantly, for decades: an unprecedented increase in the size of our nation’s elderly population. As the baby boomer generation ages, a daunting ripple effect is eroding the nursing home workforce – and may have traction well into the future.

Nursing Shortages: An Unmanageable National Crisis

An estimated 60,000 Minnesotans reach retirement age each year. This may not seem much compared to the 10,000 Americans who turn 65 every day – which happens to be more than at any other time in U.S. history – but demand is far outpacing the state’s workforce supply.

The Southeastern region has been hit the hardest, where unemployment rates have peaked at 3.8 percent. The inability to staff the Rochester-based home Samaritan Bethany, according to interviews published by local paper Post Bulletin, is leaving an entire floor of rooms unused.

“If you look at unemployment statistics, there are just physically not enough people in Olmsted County,” said Sue Knutson, CEO of the facility, whose workforce is currently 80 people short. “It's hard. I wish I had a great answer. I’d be making a lot more money doing that.”

Unfortunately, the pattern is similar across the United States. The country has been experiencing care shortages for decades. But today – not just because of an aging population, but due to factors such as rising diagnoses of chronic disease and the limited capacity of nursing education – the problem threatens to become a public health crisis the likes of which we have never seen.

“By 2025,” said nursing researchers at Vanderbilt University, the deficit “would be more than twice as large as any nurse shortage experienced since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s.”

What Does This Mean for the Aging American Public?

In short, the prognosis is poor: The elder population is expected to more than double in the next several decades, putting enormous pressure on healthcare quality.

Nursing homes’ perpetual struggle to fill staff openings means they are now putting holds on admissions of new residents. This will leave those in need of urgent care with no guarantees that they will receive it.

Even those who do find an open room, it seems, aren’t out of the woods. The patient may then have access to care, but they potentially face a new challenge: care that isn’t up to standard.

As the older generation grows at a dramatic rate, so does the suffocating volume of elder abuse and neglect. Currently affecting an estimated 1 in 10 elders in the U.S., nursing home abuse is becoming an increasingly widespread problem. Yet it remains underestimated. A staggering 4 out of 5 elder abuse cases, leading to anything from emotional turmoil to death, go unnoticed. There simply aren’t enough caregivers to detect and report wrongdoing.

Shortage Is Set to Get More Challenging, Say CEOs

The question on many seniors’ and families’ minds now is: Could this bleak staff-to-patient ratio get any worse?

In Minnesota, at least, there are clear signs of an ongoing shortage. After denying 5,000 patients admission in 2016, state- and local-level facilities accept admissions at a slow pace and sustain low retention rates from underpaying staff, among other issues. One nursing home manager at Shorewood Senior Campus said the task of vetting, hiring, and training new staff is now a job in and of itself, comprising half his workload instead of the small-time commitment it should be.

And this is only the beginning. Most baby boomers today are in their late 60s and early 70s, and it will be another decade or so before the generation considers moving into already swelling and underfunded senior communities. If nursing home resources continue to decline at this rate, there will be 18,000 more seniors than available rooms by 2050.

In order to keep up with these major shifts in demographics, nursing homes will need more funding. With more money, facilities have the means to build quality workforces who can actually take care of patients. Until then, patients are forced to take incidences of wrongful treatment into their own hands.

Sokolove Law Team

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Last modified: August 30, 2017