It’s the later years most of us imagine: safe, comfortable, and comforted by familiar people and familiar places.

But that’s a life that gets more and more unattainable by the day in Maine as nursing homes struggle to provide care, or to even stay open, amid ongoing severe staffing shortages

COVID-19 has accelerated the problem. But it’s been building for years, and until it is reversed, older Mainers who need care will find it difficult to live the life they want.

Just last week, three Maine nursing homes announced they would be closing as the result of staffing shortages, affecting about 100 residents and removing from the state 156 licensed beds. Industry officials say more closures are likely on the way.

It’s unclear where the residents will go if and when nursing homes close. But there’s no doubt it will disrupt many lives – not only for the residents themselves but for their families and caretakers who struggle to find the right situation for them.

A guardian for a resident at the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle told the Ellsworth American the resident does not want to leave the area she knows so well: “She’ll be devastated,” he said. “She spent her life in Blue Hill.”

The board of the Deer Isle facility cited its remote location, the lack of affordable housing for workers, and the area’s hard winters as obstacles in attracting workers, a problem that began a decade ago.

But the staffing shortages are a problem everywhere in the industry, as workers in the low-paying but stressful field move to other jobs with equal or higher pay. At the same time, all industries are competing for a shrinking number of workers as Maine’s workforce ages and contracts.

The Maine Health Care Association, which represents 92 of the state’s 93 nursing homes, said its survey found that worker burnout and stress were the main reasons for the shortage, with concern over the COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers a close second.

Some cited retirement, health insurance costs, the risk of COVID and the lack of child care as issues too, as well the availability of unemployment insurance and better opportunities elsewhere.

In response to the closures, Gov. Janet Mills released early $146 million in one-time state and federal funding to nursing homes and other care facilities to support worker recruitment and retention through extra pay and bonuses. The money was passed as part of the biennial budget and was due to go out next month.

Mills also put off enforcement of the vaccine mandate for another month to give people more time to comply.

Both actions will help. But Maine needs a sustained effort to support the care industry. In order to allow older Mainers and their families to live fuller, more stable lives, direct-care work has be made more attractive as a career.

A bill passed by the Legislature last year increased pay for direct-care workers to make those jobs more competitive with retail and hospitality, following the recommendations of a 2019 study commission.

But clearly, more has to be done. It’s time to set up the elder care industry so that it is stable and effective for the next century.

We have the tools to provide safety and comfort for our older residents. Isn’t that what you want for you and your family? Isn’t that what everyone should have?

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this editorial stated incorrectly that the bill passed by the Legislature increasing pay for direct-care workers was not funded. The measured included in the bill were funded through the biennial budget passed earlier this year. It was a reporting error.


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