Dear Savvy Senior: Can you give me some tips on how to pick a good nursing home in the COVID era? My mother had a stroke a while back and can’t use her legs any longer. I’ve been taking care of her at home, but her health has declined to the point that I absolutely can’t do it any longer. — Need Help
Dear Need: COVID-19 has hit nursing homes hard over the past year, making it extremely difficult for people attempting to choose a nursing home during this time.
While many elder-care experts suggest avoiding nursing homes during the pandemic if at all possible, some families, like yours, find themselves in difficult situations needing long-term or rehabilitative care for their elder loved one now.
To help you find a good nursing home in the COVID era, and avoid a bad one, here are some steps to follow.
>> Make a list: There are several sources you can turn to for referrals to top nursing homes in your area, including your mom’s doctor or nearby hospital discharge planner; friends or neighbors who may have had a loved one in a nursing home; and online at Medicare’s nursing home compare tool at Medicare.gov/care-compare. This tool will not only help you locate nursing homes in your area; it also provides a 5-star rating system on recent health inspections, staffing, quality of care and overall rating.
Also keep in mind that it’s always best to choose a nursing home that’s close to family members and friends who can check in often, because residents with frequent visitors usually get better care.
>> Do some research: To research the nursing homes on your list, put in a call to your long-term care ombudsman. This is a government official who investigates nursing home complaints and advocates for residents and their families. This person can tell you which nursing homes have had complaints or problems in the past. To find your local ombudsman, call your area aging agency (800-677-1116) or visit LTCombudsman.org.
You should also visit the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website (data.cms.gov), which provides updated data on U.S. nursing home reported COVID-19 cases and deaths.
>> Contact the nursing homes: Once you’ve identified a few good nursing homes, call them to see whether they have any vacancies, what they charge, and whether they accept Medicaid.
Also, find out their staff-to-patient ratio and staff turnover rate; their COVID infection-control procedures; the percentage of residents and staff that have been vaccinated for COVID; and their facility visitation policy.
If visitor restrictions are in place, see whether they offer smartphone, tablet or laptop technology assistance so you can have Facetime, Zoom or Skype video calls with your mom.
>> Tour your top choices: The best way to evaluate a nursing home is to visit it in person, but because of COVID, some facilities might offer limited or virtual tours only. To help you evaluate and rate a facility, Medicare offers a terrific checklist of questions that you can print at Medicare.gov/Nursing HomeCompare/Checklist.pdf.
Paying for care
With nursing home costs now averaging $255 per day nationally for a semiprivate room and nearly $290 for a private room, paying for care is another area you might have questions about or need assistance with. Medicare helps pay up to only 100 days of rehabilitative nursing home care, which must occur after a hospital stay of at least three days.
Most nursing home residents pay for care from either personal savings, a long-term care insurance policy or through Medicaid once their savings are depleted.
The National Clearinghouse for Long-Term Care Information website (Long TermCare.acl.gov) is a good resource that can help you understand and research your financial options. You can also get help from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which provides free counseling on all Medicare and Medicaid issues. To find a local SHIP counselor, visit ShiptaCenter.org or call 877-839-2675.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.