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Failing to Protect Our Own in America’s Nursing Homes

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By Ken Connor, CP Contributor
March 19, 2011|1:21 pm

“Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds.

In an economy that is increasingly calibrated for a two-person income, millions of parents across the country rely on some form of professional child care in order to meet the demands of their busy lives. Choosing the right childcare has become one of the primary challenges new parents face when Mom decides to re-enter the workforce. Parents want the best for their children. They want them to be cared for by high-caliber, qualified individuals that they can trust completely.

As might be expected, then, the childcare industry is heavily-regulated. After all, children need to be protected from those who might exploit or abuse them. While the licensing requirements vary from state-to-state, most include some form of professional training or certification for select employees, and virtually all mandate across-the-board criminal background checks. Few parents would have it any other way! Children are weak, vulnerable, and helpless. Better to eliminate potential problems by denying or restricting those with a criminal history the option of employment in a childcare setting.

Sadly, however, the same pains are not taken to protect a class of individuals that is just as weak, vulnerable, and helpless as children. According to a recent report issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 90% of nursing homes employ at least one ex-convict. The very same people who go out of their way to ensure that their children are safe and protected while at daycare may have a grandparent in a nursing home who is suffering at the hands of poorly qualified, sometimes criminally-abusive staff members.

Why is this happening? Why would those in the business of caring for America’s elderly turn a blind eye to such behavior? As with so many other instances of reprehensible human conduct, the culprit lurking behind the curtain is Greed. Because the largest expense of a nursing home’s budget is “labor,” corporate executives at these companies have learned that one surefire way to increase the profitability of their homes is to reduce costs by cutting back on staff and hiring individuals who are willing to accept lower wages. The end result? Profits up! Patient welfare down, forgotten, ignored, and suffering.

Undoubtedly, most Americans with family members in nursing homes have no idea that this is happening, and truly believe that their loved ones are being treated well. They have no idea that behind the reassuring advertisements and sophisticated marketing are profit-driven enterprises who often care more about the bottom line than they do about the welfare of seniors. They are unaware that these business often take advantage of programs like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which incentivizes the hiring of certain “target groups,” including convicted felons. By hiring hard to employ ex-cons, nursing home operators get a “two-fer”: tax credits that improve the bottom line, and lower paid employees (which produces the same result).

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One possible reason for such widespread ignorance is that, quite simply, there is very little media coverage of elder abuse (the New York Times being a notable exception). Aside from the occasional headline-grabbing report like the one recently issued, the subject is largely ignored. Perhaps that’s because much of it goes on behind the closed doors of nursing homes. Perhaps it’s because our culture is obsessed with youth and no one wants to contemplate getting old. Or perhaps it’s because we simply devalue the elderly―after all, many of them have substantially degraded mental and physical abilities.

It’s not difficult to feel concern for the welfare of our children. They represent the next generation, and are full of potential for the future, and we’ll stop at nothing to ensure that these children and grandchildren are protected and provided for. Meanwhile, America’s Greatest Generation has been largely forgotten, and is often being left unwittingly in the hands of predators who abuse or exploit them.

If compassion for the plight of our elderly loved ones is not enough to spur us to action, then perhaps the thought of our own elder-years might prompt a call for change. It’s high time that the American people wake up to the implications of what it means to become a mass geriatric society, which is where what we are rapidly becoming. Individuals need to prepare now for the years when they will live in decline. Families must prepare to assume a greater role in caring for their aging loved ones, and our churches must acknowledge that the elderly are part of the “least among us” and reach out to lend a helping hand. On the legal side of the equation, government needs to begin protecting our elderly citizens by instituting the same safeguards afforded to children and ensuring that predatory nursing homes are not selling out the care of the elderly to the lowest bidder.

We can, and must, do better.

Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC, the former President of the Family Research Council, and a nationally recognized trial lawyer.
 

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