Paul Hale has lived at a retirement home for 10 years, and he’s heard a lot of complaints. But one stands out.
“The main thing is the food,” said Hale, a resident at Fern Terrace Lodge in Bowling Green. “We eat 10 to 15 chickens a week - that’s a lot of chicken. So the food is getting kind of boring.”
Advocates collected such complaints Tuesday when more than 100 nursing home residents and workers attended a conference held by the Barren River Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. The nonprofit program serves as a proponent for residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Representatives from the local program visit about 32 facilities in the 10-county region, talking to residents and relaying their complaints to facility administrators. For about the past 10 years, the local ombudsmen program has held a regional conference, during which residents discuss issues and attend seminars.
“The general public is misled to believe that when I go into a nursing home, I have to give up my rights,” said Teresa Whitaker, district ombudsman. “This is a way that we try to empower the residents so they feel they do have a voice and they can make changes.”
Each year, one of the biggest complaints is food. Tuesday’s seminars focused on a better dining experience in nursing homes, and residents complained about small portions, uncooked food and bland options, Whitaker said.
“They don’t like the food, and there are some issues there when facilities try to cut corners,” she said.
For example, facilities are required to serve a certain amount of meat. One regional facility switched from serving a nice piece of meat to handing out chicken nuggets. Another facility puts three slices of thin deli meat on residents’ plates, she said.
“It’s really hard because there’s lots of good facilities out there,” Whitaker said. But “some try to cut costs and expenses.”
But food isn’t the only issue local ombudsmen tackle. Ombudsmen visit regional facilities on a regular basis, and residents come to them with various complaints.
Another popular problem is a lack of staff. Nursing homes are required to have a minimum ratio of one nursing assistant to every 30 residents. Some residents say they wait 30 to 40 minutes for help after pushing their call lights, Whitaker said.
“Sometimes it takes us going into (the nursing home) to get the problem resolved,” she said.
Ombudsmen are required to visit each facility once every three months, but they’re often there more. They can stay in those facilities for 24 hours each day if they choose, Whitaker said.
Ombudsmen work closely with the state office of the inspector general and other agencies that enforce rules and punish violators. Ombudsmen keep track of how residents are treated and whether administrators are violating their rights, which range from the right to privacy to the right to have certain possessions.
If those rights are violated, that generally means administrators have also violated state regulations. Ombudsmen often give administrators a chance to fix the problem before reporting it to state inspectors, Whitaker said.
“We’re there on a regular basis. We’re the voice of the residents, but administrators know we have the power of the state,” she said. “When we call the OIG, the OIG pays attention.”
It’s an important role because many residents have no other advocates and nursing home issues are widely ignored. About 60 percent of people in long-term care centers get one or fewer visitors each year, Whitaker said.
“My experience is that the vast majority of society doesn’t like to think about nursing homes because they don’t want to face their own mortality,” she said.
But, at least once a year, a regional event is dedicated to nursing home residents and the problems they face. Local ombudsmen compiled comments from Tuesday’s conference and will send them to facility administrators.
“I think it’s a great thing for the facilities to do. It lets each facility know their problems aren’t just among their facilities,” said Allison Cash, an activities director for Christian Health Center in Bowling Green. “We realize we all have problems, and we can get together and talk it over.”
Cash and other staff members attended the seminars and listened to their residents’ feedback.
“They like cooking activities. They like things they can relate back to, and that’s kind of limited at a nursing facility,” Cash said. “That’s a problem all facilities have.”
Most facilities have a resident council, a group of residents that meet, discuss issues and pass them on to local ombudsmen. Hale is president of his resident council at Fern Terrace.
He attended a similar conference five years ago, and he came to Tuesday’s meeting to get possible solutions for issues at his home.
“It’s very educational, and we get rules and information,” he said. “Of course, you learn new things you hadn’t learned before.”