Foss: Nursing homes need essential caregivers

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Categories: Sara Foss

Before the nursing home went on lockdown, Susan Ryder was there every day, taking care of her mother.

But her selflessness didn’t end there.

She involved residents in a game that entailed batting around a balloon with foam pipe. She checked on residents at meals, made sure everybody was getting enough to eat and drink. If coffee needed to be made, she made it.

“My siblings and I took care of our own mother and other mothers who had nobody taking care of them,” Ryder, of Rotterdam Junction, recalled. “We were the best (certified nursing assistants) that place ever had.”

Ryder isn’t a CNA, but after listening to her list all of the things she did at the nursing home, I understood why she saw herself in that light.

Among other things, she and her siblings made sure her mother was clean and dry – “99 percent of the time, she was sitting in wet and soiled undergarments” – kept tabs on her daily health and put her to bed at night.

“I worry about her constantly,” Ryder told me.

It’s been seven long months since Ryder and her siblings have been able to visit their mother at the Schenectady Center on Altamont Avenue. The facility remains closed to visitors, even as other nursing homes and assisted living facilities have reopened under strict guidelines from the New York State Department of Health.

Ryder believes it makes little sense to bar family members who played such a critical role in the care and support of their loved ones from nursing homes.

She wants the state to give people who frequently engaged with residents prior to lockdown “essential caregiver” status, allowing them to come and go regularly and have hands-on visits with their loved ones.

“We need to have skin-to-skin contact, to make sure they’re being taken care of,” Ryder explained. “My mother needs to be loved.”

On Saturday, Ryder and others will rally outside the Schenectady Center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to raise awareness of the essential caregiver idea.

It’s a concept that deserves consideration.

Having more eyes, ears and hands in these facilities could lead to better health outcomes, easing the loneliness currently experienced by residents while also ensuring the basic physical needs are met.

Mark Buddle, a Schenectady resident whose father also resides at the Schenectady Center, has been pushing the state to give family members essential caregiver status for months through his watchdog Twitter feed, Better Nursing Homes for New York State.

During the nursing home lockdown, Buddle’s father has had between 15 and 20 falls and lost a significant amount of weight. Buddle believes these problems might have been prevented had he been allowed to resume his daily visits and keep an eye on his dad.

“They called me about a month ago and said my father had lost 20 pounds,” said Buddle, whose father has dementia and aphasia, a language disorder that makes it hard for him to communicate. “If I had been there, I would have noticed it faster and taken corrective action. He does need help with his feeding sometimes.”

Buddle believes allowing family members to re-enter nursing homes as essential caregivers would lighten the load for nursing home staff.

“Around dinner time, you probably had between six to 10 family members there, and they would help everybody,” Buddle said. “You had a lot of hands there, helping out with care and feeding their loved ones. That’s all fallen to the staff.”

Ryder’s mom, 78-year-old, Betty Bednarowski, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and other medical conditions that require a high level of care. High staff turnover means that “most of the people who work there are strangers to her,” she said. “They don’t know her conditions.”

Dave Singer, the administrator at Schenectady Center, did not respond to a request for comment.

There is a bill, sponsored by state Assemblywoman Melissa Miller, a Republican from Nassau County, that would permit nursing home residents to have a designated “essential person” who can help with feeding, personal hygiene, dressing and other tasks.

As the pandemic drags on, it’s become increasingly clear that seniors who are locked down are suffering. Earlier this month, an article on the AARP website asked “Is extended isolation killing older adults in long-term care?”

Of course, COVID-19 has killed thousands of older adults in long-term care facilities, hence the lockdown and strict visitation guidelines.

But that doesn’t mean the status quo is acceptable.

Heartbreaking conversations with people like Ryder and Buddle have opened my eyes to the adverse health consequences of leaving seniors to languish alone in long-term care facilities, unable to see friends or family for months on end.

Allowing more visitation — and permitting designated essential caregivers to be treated similarly to staff —would go a long way toward improving their quality of life.

When I reached Ryder on the phone earlier this week, she was crying.

“I’m just thinking about my mom,” she told me. “Usually I’d be heading over there to have dinner with her right now.”

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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