Covid Pandemic Forces Families to Rethink Nursing Home Care

Even before the pandemic began 14 months ago, nursing homes had become the source for rampant, antibiotic-resistant infections. The facilities also faced systemic problems like high turnover among nursing home staff and the gaming of the federal government’s rating system, which made it hard for families to judge the quality of homes.

For years, federal health officials and some insurers have tried to encourage more stay-at-home care, and the pandemic has created a sense of urgency.

“It’s really changed the paradigm on how older adults want to live,” said Dr. Sarita Mohanty, the chief executive of the SCAN Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on issues facing older adults. The vast majority of those adults would prefer to stay at home as they age, she said.

“What’s happened is a welcome sort of market correction for nursing homes,” said Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform in San Francisco. Some families, he said, “ended up agreeing to a nursing home without giving it a lot of deliberation.” But after trying home care during the pandemic, many families found keeping an older relative at home was a viable alternative, he said.

Nursing homes rose from the almshouses in England and America that cared for the poor. In the United States, passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 provided money for states to care for the elderly. Thirty years later, the Medicaid program expanded funding, making long-term care homes central to elder care, said Terry Fulmer, the president of the John A. Hartford Foundation, an advocacy group for older adults. “If you pay the nursing homes, that’s where you go,” Dr. Fulmer said.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that some programs began to pay for home care, and the number of nursing home residents nationwide started to slowly decline, with occupancy levels in recent years flattened to about 80 percent, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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