Donna Carlstrom Wied: Low-paid staffers are foundation of skilled nursing facilities

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> Nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and skilled nursing facilities are not the topics of most people's everyday conversations. Yet, I think it is safe to say that every family will at some point have a compelling interest in at least one of these.

Whether it be long-term care for a friend or family member no longer able to safely stay at home, or short-term rehabilitation following major surgery, or a debilitating illness, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and skilled nursing facilities all serve an essential and ever-increasing need in our society.

Two of my grandparents and both of my parents spent the last years of their lives in nursing homes; my father needed the specialized care of an Alzheimer's unit. The burden on all members of my family would have been unbearable without the ongoing support of nursing home staff.

In addition, I recently found that I too needed a skilled nursing facility. A total knee replacement required that I spend several weeks following my surgery in a nursing home/rehabilitation center near my home. I was very favorably impressed with most of my experience there.

'Love what I do'

One especially difficult evening during my stay in rehabilitation, nurses and CNAs were literally running back and forth between patients. I asked one of the frazzled CNAs if what she earned was worth the weighty responsibility and the often profound stressfulness of her job. She raised her eyebrows, then shared with me the amount of her hourly wages. I was appalled.

I said, "You could flip burgers or punch keys on a cash register in a big box store. Why on earth do you do this?"

Her response was immediate. She smiled and said, "Because I love what I do."

I was pleased to tell the administrator that, in my view, her staff was the nursing home's greatest asset. She agreed. We spoke for nearly an hour. She was both cordial and instructive.

I now understand that the problems plaguing our health care systems are long-standing, complex and involve both the state and federal governments.

The professional staff of nurses and administrators is, of course, essential to a well-run facility. And, in my view, most of these folks are seriously underpaid given the required education, training and their performance expectations. However, the paraprofessional staff is, by any fair standard, dreadfully underpaid.

It is all too apparent that we live in a society that gives monetary reward to entertainment "celebrities" over real-life heroes. The certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are the paraprofessionals with whom patients normally have most interaction. They are the "first responders." They answer the call bell in the middle of the night. They adjust the pillows under aching limbs. They clean up the inevitable "messes" — all the while paying heed to making the patient feel valued and respected.

The CNA average wage is $13.36 per hour. Living wage is estimated to be $15 per hour. The pay we offer these special people is shameful. How can we attract, support and keep the most competent staff we can find? We cannot. It is my understanding that in Berkshire County alone, as of May 2015, more than 18 percent of the CNA positions were vacant.

We rely on these dedicated workers to deliver highly skilled and compassionate care to us and to our loved ones in our most vulnerable moments. It is time we stop taking advantage of these very committed people and do the right thing. They need a living wage. Key, irreplaceable people now working in our facilities will move to more lucrative, less stressful jobs. Why should they not?

New paradigm needed

Massachusetts has some of the most prestigious institutions dedicated to public health issues. Do we not have sufficient intelligence and commitment in this state alone to create a new paradigm for fair reimbursement and delivery of essential health services?

Creating change in the total structure will, of course, take time. However, I see a looming crisis that begs for intervention now: a dwindling population of CNAs. Without providing a living wage now, I fear that any chance of creating a new, equitable, and economically viable senior care/rehabilitation model will be lost.

Please contact Gov. Baker and your legislators and urge them to quickly take the steps necessary so that nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and skilled nursing facilities can pay a living wage to their committed staffs.

Donna Carlstrom Wied contributes occasionally to The Eagle.


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