For 15 years, Mary Pritchard was a nursing home ombudsman in Schenectady in the early days of the program meant to protect residents in communal care.
“We were not advocating for the family, we were not advocating for the health department, just the residents within the nursing home,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.
Nursing homes have been closed to visitors and independent inspectors since March as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread. That’s changing on Wednesday as nursing homes and long term care facilities will once again be allowed to have visitors on a limited basis.
The nursing home ombudsman program, designed to be an independent eyes and ears for residents, is also restarting this week. But Pritchard is worried the program in recent years has not been as independent and needs to be strengthened.
“We did it because we were truly supporting the various people that were in the nursing homes,” she said. “Sometimes that was a very hard thing to do, but we got results.”
Visitors have been barred from visiting nursing home residents for the last five months. Since then, more than 6,300 residents have died of COVID-19 or have had deaths likely related to the disease.
The number may also be much higher and legislative hearings are planned for next month on the issue.
But allowing visitors back in, advocates say, will help improve the health and safety of residents, especially those who have cognitive issues.
“It makes all the difference to have a loved one come and somebody who cares about you and your well being to be there,” said Maria Alvarez, the executive director of the Statewide Senior Action Council.
And like the ombudsman program, having visitors will also serve as a check in for residents’ health.
“Somebody who comes in is also another set of eyes to see how that person’s treatment is going and if there are any other needs that are not being seen,” Alvarez said.
But changes are needed, especially if there is a second wave of coronavirus cases or ahead of the next pandemic. Communal care facilities face unique challenges that have made their resident even more vulnerable.
“This pandemic unfortunately has shown a spotlight on what happens when you don’t have safe staffing and the proper protections in order like PPE,” Alvarez said.