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A handful of Nebraska nursing homes have closed this year – from Mullen to Beatrice. The people who call those facilities home are now having to find a different place to stay, and in some cases, moving back in with loved ones.
Heidi Thomas is pouring thousands of dollars into her narrow-hall home in Arapahoe. The renovations will hopefully make living here easier for her husband, Alan, who was recently kicked out of the only nursing facility in the 1,000-person town.
“I had to move furniture out of the front two rooms, and I’m still not done organizing things,” Thomas said, “but moved the hospital bed into his bedroom, the lift chair into his bedroom, and this bathroom was done around six years ago to fit him.”
Heidi began part-time cleaning, cooking, and nursing assistant work at ‘Good Samaritan,’ so she could see him more often. That’s on top of her full-time degreed, certified special education teacher at the town’s school.
Heidi said moving Alan home has led to drastic changes in her personal life.
“Having to tell people ‘just so you know, I may not be able to show up’ is something that I have to just be okay with,” Thomas said. “Like I have no emotional fallout from that. It’s like ‘I’m going to have to cancel that. Okay, can’t do that either.’ And just be okay with that. People just have to understand that I just have to live differently than they do. I cannot worship a clock.”
That also means Heidi can’t feel comfortable visiting her kids in Arizona.
Heidi considered taking time off from work, just to sort out how Alan would be cared for.
Daily costs also add up quickly, especially for groceries. Alan’s diet requires better food – veggies, fruits and quality meat. There are other expenses as well, because at-home nursing still means opting-in to the Medicare program.
“Having Alan come home means that I have to absorb the cost of living, because they were taking care of that cost of living,” Thomas said. “I saw the same share of costs. It still costs me $3,400 a month to pay into the system.”
Heidi is close with the people who care for her husband and she wants other elders to have compassionate people caring for them too.
“I don’t want my neighbor Ethel down the street to have somebody come in and take care of her and not take care of her,” Thomas said… “and collecting a paycheck. That’s not okay. That’s highway robbery.”
Heidi hopes families won’t be forced to hand off their relatives to nursing facilities in other towns.
Alan could have gone to Tri-Valley Assisted Living in Cambridge, Nebraska, which is about 15 miles away.
Good Samaritan Society still has a non-compete in the Arapahoe area – even though its nursing home shut down.
“Sanford still owns the bed rights to this community. You and I could have lots of money and decide ‘I think we’ll just build a building this year,” Thomas said. “That would be a nice thing for us to do with all of our money, and we still wouldn’t be able to utilize it for nursing care, because certificate of need laws mandate who can do what.”
Heidi has ideas from nursing home cooperatives to community-supported nursing homes.
“That’s another legislative thing that legislators need to look at: What would be best for a population now,” Thomas said, “because the percentage of people who are aging right now actually outnumbers the 10 and under population. And that has not previously been the way the numbers shook out.”
Until those opportunities open up in Arapahoe, Heidi wants legislators to look into certificate of need laws, so more rural families don’t find themselves in nursing home deserts.
“What we don’t want is our aging population to have unnecessary stress, neglect or abuse because we don’t have the provisions put in place for them,” Thomas said.
Heidi said it’s a frustrating, uphill fight and one that will continue if small towns are left searching for their own solutions.
“How do you qualify who’s worth taking care of and who’s not worth taking care of?”