My mother Helen lived on her own at home until she was 89 years old and then lived in elderly housing until she was 97, at which point she came to live with me and my husband in our Lowell home. After she suffered a mild stroke while living with us and left us for rehabilitative care, we knew she needed more care than we could provide. One year ago, she moved into the Palm Center nursing facility in Chelmsford.
Apart from the fact that she is now 100 years old, there is nothing remarkable about her health except that she is now confined to a wheelchair and not as independent as she once was and therefore more dependent upon the able assistance of nurses and nurse aides.
My husband and I are at the Palm Center every day and what we have observed is a hardworking nursing staff that can barely manage the daily demands of their work. They begin each day by getting residents up and dressed for breakfast, serve them their breakfast, and then remove their trays and dishes before going onto the next task and the next task after that. Unlike hospitals, where the kitchen staff prepare and serve the meals and then remove dishes and trays, nursing home aides are doing double duty all day long.
But this issue is not limited to this one nursing home. Indeed, the Palm is rated above average — both in its staffing levels and in its overall performance ranking. Since my mother’s admission, we have become very familiar with the overall plight of nursing homes in Massachusetts, how these facilities cannot find or keep staff because they cannot pay them a living wage and those who do stay have to work a second or third job to make ends meet. Many of these facilities have simply closed down because they can’t pay their bills, in large part because they are overly dependent on inadequate Medicaid funding that supports nearly three out of four residents.Our family has lived a middle-class life with a solid ethic of family, hard work and involvement in our community and church. After the last of her children had graduated from high school, my mother took a job in one of the local mills making hosiery and remained there until her retirement at the age of 62. My parents remained active in their retirement and my father, once honored as the Volunteer of the Year by the Archdiocese of Boston, passed away 20 years ago.
My husband and I worked hard while we raised our four children and when my youngest was 2 years old, I opened a day care business at home and maintained that for nearly 30 years. We did not amass wealth, but we paid our bills and gave back when we could and raised our children to do the same.
Most of the families we know in Lowell and elsewhere have lived the same way, working hard to provide our kids with a secure home and a good education. Like so many thousands of others across Massachusetts, we have watched as our parents aged, cared for them as best we could and then turned to a health care system for long-term care support.
Now in our 70s, we wonder what awaits us when one or both of us can no longer live at home. Will this system be there when we need it?
We are fortunate to have my mother in a safe and loving environment, but the strain on this system is obvious as we watch these dedicated aides and nurses struggle to survive in low-wage jobs that would not have been enough for us to support our own families. How can we ask them to accept less when they are caring for the people we love most?
The question comes down to fairness. Is this how we want to treat our frail elderly and the dedicated caregivers who provide them with the comfort and dignity that they have earned? More directly, is this what you would want for your parents or yourselves?
Lorraine Bomil and her husband are retired and live in Lowell where they raised four children.