The latest session of the Minnesota Legislature set off a series of distressing flashbacks as I waited for forward movement on positive elder care reform. The flashbacks occurred, I surmise, because too often this year’s legislative work on vulnerable adult issues reminded me eerily of my family’s experience with long-term care. Let me explain.
Years ago, I attended many nursing home care conferences as my mother’s representative after she was silenced by dementia. During those conferences, those on my mother’s care team listened to my concerns and expressed sympathy. They also assured me that they would be addressing my mother’s issues regarding inconsistency of quality care, personal safety and the security of her belongings.
Similarly this winter, after testifying about my mother’s disturbing nursing home experiences before the Aging and Long-Term Care Policy committees of the Senate and the House, I heard assurances from legislators that bills designed to protect vulnerable adults would be forthcoming.
Many staff members at my mother’s nursing home were hardworking and well-intentioned. Yet they were hobbled by poor staff-to-resident ratios that made it impossible to deliver the quality of care that was promised in corporate marketing brochures.
At the Legislature, senators and representatives determined to strongly address elder abuse were hobbled, too. Bills with wide bipartisan support were not granted hearings. And the bills that did move forward were weakened by industry lobbyists.
With my mother’s care team, and later with the corporation that oversaw my mother’s nursing home, I tried in vain to bring attention to systemic issues that negatively affected residents and staff alike. Unfortunately, my concerns disappeared into a black hole, never to be seriously addressed.
At the Legislature, the auditor’s report on the Health Department’s Office of Health Facility Complaints (OHFC) and the governor’s task force on elder abuse cried out for elder care reform. Nonetheless, movement on elder abuse legislation stalled. Industry representatives and lobbyists blamed a “few bad actors” for the horrific cases of abuse described in testimony given by distraught families. Minimized was the fact that the OHFC continues to receive 400 new complaints per week.
Mom paid dearly for nursing home care, care that she did not consistently receive, especially on poorly staffed weekends and holidays. She received her best care when the Minnesota Department of Health surveyors arrived to oversee compliance with regulations. On those days, staff scurried in valiant attempts to thoroughly deliver care spelled out in plans uniquely designed for each of the needy residents.
During the final days of the legislative session, some valiant legislators did their best work and advocated until the very last moment for a stand-alone bill that would address systemic elder care reform and assisted-living licensure. They understood that vulnerable adults need protection now. A bill deserved to be heard, debated and amended, they said. Instead, Article 27, with its weak elder care measures, dropped into a giant black hole, the 989-page omnibus supplemental budget bill (SF 3656).
The passage of the omnibus bill prompted a wave of familiarity: the discouraged, powerless and isolated feeling I experienced back in the nursing home when attempts to advocate for my mother’s quality of life netted only short-lived improvements or nothing at all.
Mom is dead, so my elder care concerns are no longer about her. They are about everyone else: people who will need care and those who will provide it. That will include most of us.
There is good news. The Elder Abuse Consumer Coalition, consisting of AARP Minnesota, Alzheimer’s Association Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter, Elder Voice Family Advocates, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, is organized, strong and determined to advocate for vulnerable adults.
It is comforting to know that neither this coalition nor the legislators who truly support vulnerable adults will be disappearing into black holes anytime soon.
JacLynn Herron, of New Brighton, is the author of “Singing Solo: In Search of a Voice for Mom,” a Minnesota family’s elder care story.