By Liz Empson and Matthew Yarnell
Every caregiver in a nursing home knows this golden rule: We don’t let anyone die alone.
No matter what is happening inside a home, caregivers have always made sure someone is with a resident in their final moments to hold their hand, comfort them, and hold a moment of peace when they pass.
But that golden rule is now often broken. Over the past decade as we were asked to do more and more with fewer and fewer staff, we were forced to choose between the needs of the dying and the needs of the living.
Then COVID struck, and residents declined so quickly that sometimes they died before you knew how sick they were. Now, with staffing at its most critical, caregivers move quickly from resident to resident just to get them bathed, clothed, and fed.
We often work double shifts, sometimes seven days a week. The pace is frantic, exhausting, and demanding. It is a race to cover the basics — there is no time to pause and tend to the emotional needs of our residents, or provide the dignity and compassion they deserve in their final hours.
It is heartbreaking. It is unacceptable. And it needs to stop.
The nursing home crisis did not begin with COVID. The pandemic only laid bare the long-standing flaws, failures, and weaknesses of Pennsylvania nursing homes.
For decades, caregivers sounded the alarm on chronic and dangerous understaffing and unacceptable conditions for workers and residents. We made do with dwindling resources and demanded lifesaving reform, while the industry increasingly focused on the bottom line, and rampant, unchecked nursing home sales to irresponsible owners drove down standards.
Our elected leaders in Harrisburg heard countless hours of testimony from those on the frontlines. Yet the process of enacting change has been painstakingly slow. To make matters worse, employers often resist working alongside caregivers to tackle the growing challenges of caring for our seniors together.
Pennsylvania has one of the worst COVID nursing home death rates in the entire country. More than 13,000 nursing home residents have died and countless workers have fallen ill or lost their lives. In the wake of the loss and tragedy of the past 12 months, thousands of caregivers across the state took action.
On May 25, they gathered outside their nursing homes, armed with signs reading “protect our seniors,” “better staffing now,” and “I am the voice for my residents.”
Their voices filled the streets from Philadelphia to Lehigh, from Harrisburg to Erie, because enough is enough. We cannot lose one more life to inaction and excuses.
These 4,200 caregivers from over 80 homes will negotiate new union contracts this year. They are leading the charge to build a resident-centered nursing home industry that values care and protects seniors.
This means updating staffing regulations to what experts agree is needed to provide quality care. It means providing decent, living wages for caregivers so they will stay at the bedside instead of going to make more money at the convenience store down the street.
It means transparency and accountability when nursing homes are sold so that residents, workers, and the public – whose tax dollars fund more than 70 percent of nursing home costs – are sure money is going to take care of our seniors, no to profits or CEO bonuses.
Too many people have died because of greed and inaction. There are no more excuses.
The Department of Health must improve staffing standards at all Pennsylvania nursing homes, and employers must sit down with the essential frontline workers to build strong union contracts that will improve care and save lives.
Liz Empson is a nursing home LPN from Harrisburg. Matthew Yarnell is the president of SEIU Healthcare PA.