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It’s Time to Bring Safe Staffing to New Jersey Nursing Homes

New Jersey nursing homes rank among the bottom in the country for average CNA staffing-hours per patient. But CNAs are often both caregivers and family to their patients

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I am proud to be a nursing-home caregiver and delegate of my union, 1199SEIU. Every day, my coworkers and I strive to provide loving care and attention to our elderly residents. In the 22 years that I’ve been a certified nursing assistant (CNA), short staffing has made it more and more challenging to give our residents the personalized care they need and deserve. That’s why on May 1, International Workers Day, I joined fellow CNAs from across the state for the “March for Our Patients” in Trenton, calling on New Jersey lawmakers to pass bill S-1612/A-382, to establish minimum nursing aide-to-patient ratios in our state’s nursing homes.

Today, New Jersey nursing homes rank among the bottom in the country for average CNA staffing hours per patient. But we play an incredibly important role in our patients’ lives, assisting them with all their routine daily activities, like dressing, feeding, and bathing, as well as helping them turn in their beds to prevent pressure sores.

Our residents are wonderful people who have lived long lives and have many stories they want to tell us. We are the only people they get to talk to every day. Families sometimes come during the holidays or on weekends, but from Monday to Friday, usually all they have is us. We become our patients’ primary source of emotional support and friendship at a difficult and lonely time in their lives.

When we’re working short, it becomes very challenging to meet our patients’ basic needs, let alone to find the time to do something special to brighten their day. That could be something as simple as taking a few minutes to curl a patient’s hair or put her makeup on, to make her feel cared for.

One resident at my facility, who wasn’t even under my charge, bonded particularly closely with me. She used to follow me everywhere and wait outside the door while I was caring for others. She wanted to keep her ability to walk, but needed assistance getting out of her wheelchair, which I would help her with. Imagine sitting in a chair all day, and only having a few minutes to get up and walk each day. How would you feel?

There are many ways in which short staffing in nursing homes changes our residents’ preferred lifestyles. For example, many patients need assistance with eating. In the mornings, because there’s so much work to do, CNAs often must urge patients to eat fast, even if they would prefer to eat at a slower pace. If a patient wants to sleep in and doesn’t wake up in time for breakfast, they may lose their hot meal and their CNA will have to scramble to find them a sandwich, often just peanut butter and jelly.

Residents usually get just two showers a week. If there were more CNAs, residents could have more flexibility in choosing when and how often they are cleaned. Our residents are human beings — they deserve the opportunity to choose the type of lifestyle they want, and it’s not fair to them if short staffing prevents that.

Two years ago, my coworkers and I were ecstatic when our Legislature passed a bill to improve CNA staffing levels in nursing homes, but we were equally heartbroken when it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in January 2016. Now is the time to right that wrong. Our patients have waited long enough — we must honor and value their lives by passing bill S-1612/A-382 this year.

Claire Wombough is a certified nursing assistant and a member of 1199SEIU.

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