Voices for the elderly lobby in Olympia for more funding

If there are millions and millions of excess dollars in the state's coffers, why not send a little portion of that money to the elderly folks residing in nursing homes? After all, they're the ones who helped make Washington state what it is today.

That was the impetus that compelled 21 Hillcrest Manor staff members to travel to Olympia and lobby with state legislators on behalf of those they serve.

"There is an excess amount of literally billions of dollars in funding for the state of Washington. There are organizations that want to build a new stadium (on the west side of the mountains)," said Hillcrest Manor Administrator Mary Arthur.

"We're asking for a very small amount of dollars in their bank account for our elders who have helped build Washington state.

"They are the elders that have built roads, dams, the irrigation districts and planted the orchards," she said.

It's a resounding philosophy among Arthur's staff that lobbied in Olympia, as evidenced by the broad spectrum of the professional services the individuals provide, including nursing, social services, nursing assistants, medical records, restorative aides, activities and even the maintenance man.

What they want is simple: an additional $45 million for nursing homes in this state. That money, says Arthur, is needed for nursing homes to simply break even.

"Nursing homes in Washington state are under-funded $15 per patient, per day and that's why so many (facilities) have gone bankrupt and closed," says Arthur.

Arthur explained that nursing homes are reimbursed for expenses by Adult and Community Services through the state. Just recently, Hillcrest Manor was reimbursed for 2003 expenditures.

The problem, she says, is that it's not enough. Nursing homes that were frugal in 2003, as was Hillcrest, receive little funding.

"We're hurting. We've lost money and it's been money from other facilities that keeps us going."

What the staff wants is simple: provide more funding to facilitate more staffing and enhance the quality of life for the elderly.

Restorative aide Dana Ortiz told Sen. Jim Honeyford that more money is needed to help provide better care. She's tired, she says, of telling someone she'll be right back. Sometimes, she doesn't make it back, and it troubles her deeply. "When you tell someone that you'll be right back and you don't go back, even if it's just one person per day, those people add up."

Ortiz said she has one elderly patient that asks, "Please just sit with me and talk to me. Just until my husband gets here." It's heartbreaking for her to have to say no and she made that clear to legislative representatives.

Loneliness can be a huge obstacle for an older person in a facility and Hillcrest staff are acutely aware of that. Nursing assistant Maria Garibaldo told the story of one woman who was so lonely she wanted to die. "She asked how much pay I was getting by the hour, so she could borrow money for me to spend more time with her. It was so hard because she was feeling so lonely."

Arthur says that Hillcrest has about 10 patients per nursing assistant, but it's a ratio that's unacceptable.

Even Apolonia Perez, who helps elders bath and shower, has to cut time short sometimes. "People want to relax and enjoy it. And we want to give them more time to enjoy it," says Perez, noting that the facility has a jacuzzi.

Jenny Sanders, a nurse who handles medications, occasionally feels the pressure to hurry up and make it through her 34 patients within two and a half hours. "Some have 15 to 20 pills three or four times a day and they want to know what they're taking and why. Sometimes they hurt and they can't express it. That takes time and sometimes, you don't have a lot of time."

When given the chance to speak her mind, activities assistant Heli Martinez said, "If there was just one more me, it'd make it more interesting for (the elders)."

When the staff members traveled to Olympia to lobby on behalf of the elderly, they bonded. Patricia Ross, who works in medical records, was moved to tears when she recalled the Jan. 8 trip to Olympia and the impact the testimonies of her co-workers had on her.

"These gentlemen (Representatives Dan Newhouse and Bruce Chandler and Senator Jim Honeyford) were not sitting with a bunch of women who work in a nursing home. We work for our families. These people that live here are our families. The women we had with us (in our group) devote so much of their time and their hearts. You could feel the warmth, you could feel the love and it wasn't selfish. It was for the elders.

"It gave me a totally different look (at co-workers). It opened up my heart even wider."

The trip also strengthened her passion. The number one thing Ross learned when she walked away from the trip was how to best communicate her passion to state government: send handwritten letters. Don't do the telephone tree or sign a form letter. Now, she says, she wants to shout that out to the world, or at least to the community, to help when it comes to passing a bill that will help fund nursing homes.

"Write them a letter and let them know we mean business. Send letters to (committee chairpersons), representatives and the governor. It can be a one-liner, a paragraph or a long letter.

"It's our duty for our elders. We are their voice. We have got to fight for them. And I think it's everybody's duty within the community."


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