Nursing home mom wins with family visitation change

Many seniors who live in nursing homes will be thrilled to know they can now visit after being shut out for decades.

But amid the enthusiasm there are some who worry the door may be ajar too far.

Gov. Larry Hogan quietly signed into law legislation that removes at least one of the last remaining barriers to visiting. The change took effect just after Christmas. Now, any family with a senior who lives in a retirement community, long-term care facility or nursing home can visit for a maximum of two hours at a time.

Officials estimate thousands of seniors might seek this new flexibility. Many in the nursing home industry are suspicious it is a way to cut the number of staff available to supervise visitation.

“It looks like a made-up law that everyone passed because it was urgent,” said Barbian Bush, a case manager with Maryland’s Proviso Network, a nonprofit that advocates for disabled adults in Maryland.

The legislation is a response to criticism that in the past visiting hours at nursing homes were managed by the medical director of a facility. They were often subject to the biases of that administrator, including his or her personal, racial or gender preferences.

To allow some flexibility for families is an important step, said Patricia Carpenter, who served on a group appointed by Hogan to examine the situation and make recommendations.

“This opens the door wide,” said Carpenter, who became director of the Commission on Senior Services after her advocacy helped to pass the new law.

The new law leaves some doctors worried it will enable the administrator to take on a bigger role in managing visitation at a nursing home.

Medical directors have a long history of being in a position to advance their own views about what should happen with residents, said Pete Bellissimo, of the American Medical Association’s Center for Hospital-based Health Services.

“When you’re an administrator, it’s very hard to enforce the hierarchy of rules. They’re too easily distracted,” Bellissimo said.

There are, of course, organizations that monitor safety of residents who are close to the windows and who have hearing impairments. They should always be kept open, Bellissimo said.

However, families say the law is about more than just safety.

For parents of a person living in a care facility, it’s an opportunity to check in on the resident and see how they’re doing, said Sharon Vassall-Howe, whose 83-year-old son lives in a nursing home.

Her concern for him is that his diabetes is still uncontrolled. He cannot walk and it took him four months to communicate with her when she called the facility to say he had fallen.

Once at the facility, she’s required to show proof of her enrollment in Medicare to bring him home to her, but without a transportation system and the doctor’s visits Vassall-Howe would have needed to coordinate, she fears it would take days or even weeks before her son was able to return home.

“How do I get home?” she wondered.

Mary Halsey’s 97-year-old mother lives in a nursing home that keeps a woman she has met on visits around just long enough to install her coat.

“The nursing home will never have time to talk to me about how to get her to walk,” said Halsey, a longtime Maryland resident who took a leave of absence from her job as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

“It’s not the kind of visit that I want,” Halsey said.

Other caring family members fear that their loved ones might be unsafe because the new law makes them less accountable for their care.

The measure requires facilities to educate visitors about the need to comply with older-adult safeguards.

John and Nancy Veal decided to move their mother, Ruby North, to a nursing home in 2014 after a decline in quality. But unlike other parents they wanted to visit her and bring her a snack.

“I would love her to be able to get up from the couch and feed herself,” John Veal said.

He thinks the new law will allow the caretaker of a loved one who can’t go home to merely close the curtains and hope the person continues to heal.

“We don’t want to just care for a bedridden person at home. We want to bring them flowers,” he said.

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