Ohio State football is in full swing, and Ohioans are gathering, or perhaps not gathering, around their televisions on Saturdays to watch. This experience feels like a rare luxury, a slice of normalcy, in a year where so much has been taken from us all. This week, Ohioans will navigate the “new normal” of scaled-down holiday meals. Unfortunately, for long-term care providers and the older Ohioans we serve, nothing about life right now is normal. Furthermore, there is no “new normal” on the horizon, as providers face constantly-changing regulations according to the rise and fall of cases in their communities and indeed, within their walls.
We know that the social support that older adults receive from family and loved ones drive better outcomes in nursing home residents and all who rely on long-term services and supports. Social isolation is as dangerous to our health as smoking cigarettes. It is exceptionally challenging, then, that the primary defense against a virus that is most deadly to older, higher-risk individuals is to restrict visitation. Older adults, caregivers, and families just want to return to normal, but the virus must be conquered first.
Frankly, indoor visitation under current pandemic restrictions can be difficult. Residents with hearing challenges sometimes struggle to discern words through masks. We miss hugging our loved ones, and holding their hand. My mother lives in a LeadingAge Ohio member life plan community just outside of Columbus, and visitation can be challenging, despite best efforts from staff to accommodate. Still, neither she nor I would trade the time we are able to spend together for the world. When the facility was struck with a COVID outbreak, we were unable to continue these visits until the case count returned to zero.
In addition to the physical risk of the virus, long-term care providers, many of whom have served older adults in the community for over a hundred years and all of which serve a vital need, are grappling with the risk to their reputation whenever there is a positive case. Nursing facilities are integral parts of the communities they serve. They exist to serve, and provide a vital service.
The long-term care sector is a highly-regulated field, and is hurt by public perception of aging and negative press. Lower-than-needed pay scales (and far lower-than-needed reimbursement), drove a workforce crisis in the years leading up to the pandemic. These are difficult jobs, both mentally and physically, and now staff within the sector are under immense pressure. Long-term care workers provide a valuable and compassionate service, and put themselves at risk daily. Despite concern for their own families, they show up to work to provide comfort and care - from maintenance of facilities to nutritious meals - to those who need it most.
LeadingAge Ohio, the voice of around 400 providers of long-term services and supports, continues to hear heartbreaking stories from members who have lost long-time staff and “rising stars” within their organizations to higher paying, lower stress jobs outside of long-term care.
A provider in southwest Ohio shared that a young staffer, a growing leader who had spearheaded exciting new initiatives for the organization and had a bright future within the sector, had recently quit, citing that it was all “too much”. Another provider in western Ohio shared that a new nursing hire lasted one day in long-term care, shifted to a different position in assisted living, and finally was out the door just days later.
Long-term care workers are heroes, and our elders are a wealth of knowledge and joy. Everyone deserves to live in a home that is safe and enables us to be healthy. Those of us who live in nursing homes or rely on aging services simply need different supports for that to happen. For those supports to meet demand, a strong workforce is needed. By 2040, with a quickly growing population of older adults, a 44% increase in staffing will be required just to meet current levels, let alone where the sector wants to be.
It is incumbent upon our leaders at the state and national level to recognize what is happening to the organizations that serve our elders during this pandemic, and to recognize the heroic job individuals in this sector are doing. Help can come in many forms: by sharing and elevating stories of frontline caregivers, by advocating for CARES Act distributions and a strong state budget with support for aging services – in facilities and in the home. And, of course, in this season of Thanksgiving, with a simple, heartfelt "thank you".