Paul Prather

From Greatest Generation to forgotten folks: You can help vulnerable seniors

Many people in nursing homes never get any visitors, advocates say. But you can sign up to visit weekly. Or donate shampoo and other toiletry items.
Many people in nursing homes never get any visitors, advocates say. But you can sign up to visit weekly. Or donate shampoo and other toiletry items. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Let’s say you dearly wish you could quit fuming about the Mueller report and concentrate on something more edifying.

Or let’s say you’d like to escape the narcissism that keeps you lying awake half the night calculating how to add more square footage onto that McMansion you’re building.

Or let’s say you’d just like to practice pure and undefiled religion (to borrow a line from St. James) by helping somebody who can’t help you in return.

Here’s your opportunity to focus your mind and energies on a worthy cause.

Help nursing home residents. The need is great.

I’ve corresponded lately with a couple of staff members from the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass, Inc., also referred to as NHOA.

They’ve opened my eyes. Now I hope to open yours.

We’re all getting older every day. But I guess I didn’t previously think much about the elderly who live in nursing homes and similar facilities.

I try not to think about the fact that I could end up in such a situation myself.

Apparently I’m not alone in my obliviousness and denial.

About 60 percent of nursing home residents receive no visitors, ever, said Susie D. Hillard, the Bluegrass ombudsman agency’s director of philanthropy and administration, in an email.

Some residents suffer from dementia. The majority are impoverished. Eighty percent are female.

They need friends. Just ordinary friends like us.

“Most people will help children, babies, and animals, but old people? They’re not just vulnerable — they’re forgotten,” Hillard said.

“Few people remember or care that these frail, helpless human beings were once child-care providers, store clerks, mothers, musicians, teachers, managers — in other words, contributing members of society. Heck, we’re talking about the Greatest Generation here — the patriots who built this nation.”

The Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass works to improve the quality of care for these residents of long-term care facilities, which include not just nursing homes but family care homes and personal care homes. Among other things, the agency seeks to prevent, identify and alleviate neglect and abuse.

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It often receives complaints that nursing homes have failed to respond to residents’ requests for assistance, personal hygiene and medication; about staffing shortages; and about unsuitable living environments.

According to the agency, it’s able to resolve 86 percent of such complaints to residents’ satisfaction.

The Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass is one of 15 district ombudsman organizations that coordinate ombudsmen services across the state under a contract with the Kentucky Department for Aging and Independent Living.

The Bluegrass agency employs about 25 part-time ombudsmen who visit more than 4,000 residents in 49 nursing homes and 1,560 residents in 58 personal care and family care homes in 17 central Kentucky counties.

Statewide, there are about 35,000 such residents.

“We think of our residents as treasures, because they are,” Hillard said. “These folks are as defenseless as newborns, yet we don’t give them a fraction of the time and attention a cute baby usually receives.”

Hers isn’t a religious organization, but it welcomes human and financial help from churches and other civic groups.

A big problem in elder care is that nursing homes often are under-staffed.

“Kentucky is one of only a handful of states without a minimum staffing law,” explained Denise Wells, the Bluegrass district’s ombudsman.

Research shows that nursing home residents require a minimum 4.1 hours of direct care per day to avoid negative outcomes such as bedsores and preventable hospitalizations.

A lot of Kentucky nursing homes don’t provide anywhere near that much.

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The commonwealth doesn’t require nursing homes to follow a ratio of one nursing aide to every 20, 30 or even 40 residents, Wells said.

This under-staffing can lead to unnecessary suffering — bedsores, malnutrition, dehydration, incontinence, loss of mobility and bone-breaking falls. And then there’s the loneliness, fear, shame and loss of dignity residents experience when they’re neglected.

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Here’s what you, your church or your civic organization can do to help:

Volunteer. The Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass sponsors a Friendly Visitor program to relieve residents’ isolation. Volunteers undergo a background check and two hours of training. They then agree to visit a resident weekly. They also can refer concerns about neglect or abuse to an ombudsman.

Donate. It costs $100 a year to provide ombudsman services to one resident. Residents are never charged for any of the services the agency provides.

Also, residents need shampoo, soap, lotion, other toiletries, clothing, blankets and snacks. From Mother’s Day until Father’s Day, the Bluegrass agency will accept gifts and cash to help the neediest residents celebrate their birthdays.

You can contribute online at www.ombuddy.org. Or send a check to NHOA at 3138 Custer Dr., Suite 110, Lexington, Ky. 40517. Gifts are tax-deductible.

Speak up. The agency can suggest ways to make a difference on the legislative level. For instance, you might want to ask your state representative or senator why Kentucky doesn’t do more to safeguard these vulnerable citizens.

For more information on any of these matters, contact the state ombudsman hotline at (859) 277-9215, or call toll free at (800) 372-2991, or send an email to NHOA@ombuddy.org.

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