Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA ROSA – As a former certified nursing assistant, Dennis Ryan understands the importance of adequate staffing to help care for residents in nursing homes.
Sometimes, he said, a person wants more than just help addressing physical needs.
“There’s nothing wrong with sitting on the edge of the bed and shooting the bull,” he said in a recent interview.
Ryan, 75, is a resident at Vecino Sanos Assisted Living Center in Guadalupe County, where a confidential complaint in June, state officials say, raised concerns about health and safety. Since then, residents interviewed by the Journal say they’ve seen improvements.
State officials cite the changes at Vecino Sanos – including the appointment of a temporary administrator to complement the existing staff – as an example of the importance of getting more eyes and ears inside facilities that care for some of New Mexico’s most vulnerable residents, especially as the state’s population of older adults grows.
They are hoping that as New Mexicans visit friends and relatives in nursing homes and similar facilities, they’ll alert the state to any potential problems.
To support that effort, the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department is aiming to expand its network of volunteer ombudsmen from 50 to 200 to help better cover the state.
Once trained, volunteers are assigned to a specific facility within their area and asked to commit to three hours a week.
The ombudsmen serve dual roles – comforting residents while strengthening accountability at long-term care facilities, officials say.
Changes at Vecino Sanos, for example, came after a complaint came through the ombudsman program, state officials said.
“Volunteers are an essential aspect of the ombudsman program,” said Gigi Greco of the ombudsman program. “… If you see something, say something.”
When complaints come in, the Department of Health investigates by reviewing records, conducting interviews and doing observations. The person who filed the complaint isn’t identified in any statement of regulatory violations issued to the facility, according to the state.
The state has the option of pursuing receivership, a legal process that allows the Department of Health to take over a facility temporarily.
That wasn’t the case for Vecino Sanos, where the governing board agreed voluntarily to make changes, according to state officials.
In fact, Rebecca Maes, administrator at Vecino Sanos, said she sought help from state agencies before the June incident that triggered a broader state response.
Smaller communities in New Mexico, she said, need more resources, especially for mental health care.
In any case, Maes said that she is thankful for the state help and that Vecino Sanos will continue providing “unconditional loving care” to the people who live there.
“The residents are being taken care of,” she said. “They’re in safe hands.”
Purvi Mody, special director for the Department of Health, said the state is pushing to build a cooperative relationship with long-term care facilities. In some cases, she said, the cooperation can allow residents to stay in their home facility rather than be moved to a new one.
“The state has a lot of resources to help a lot of these small communities,” Mody said in an interview.
But Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, secretary of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department, said the state will step in more aggressively when needed.
The pandemic left many residents feeling isolated, she said, underscoring the need to monitor conditions in long-term care facilities.
New Mexico moved quickly during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict visitors at nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Most visits were banned for about five months.
A county-level system of varying restrictions was later imposed. In June this year, the state issued new rules allowing in-room visits between fully vaccinated residents and guests without social distancing.
“Now that we’re opening back up,” Hotrum-Lopez said, “we want the public to know our goal is to protect every single resident in a facility.”
The push to expand monitoring in group homes comes as New Mexico’s population is skewing older.
Over the past decade, the number of older adults in New Mexico climbed while the under-18 population shrank, according to analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee.
At Vecino Sanos, resident Leella Baker, 77, said she has seen workers doing repairs at the facility, which she appreciates.
“It’s a nice place,” she told the Journal. “All the nurses are really nice.”
Ryan, the Air Force veteran, said the key to more improvement is the hiring of additional aides to help the residents.
“That’s been the main sore spot at this place,” he said, “not having enough help.”