, Salem, MA

May 5, 2011

Letter: Topsfield case shows state must upgrade regs for dementia care

To the editor:

The report made public last week regarding the abuse of at least a dozen residents at a nursing home in Topsfield, some of whom apparently have dementia, once again raises the question: Why doesn't Massachusetts have adequate regulations and training for dementia care?

Its members comprise one of the most vulnerable populations among nursing home residents, yet the protections to keep them safe are sorely lacking.

Our hearts go out to the many families who had loved ones who were victimized. And to the victims, we say, "We need to do a better job for you."

We know that most direct care workers in nursing homes are honest, hardworking and provide quality care. However, bad care does happen, and vulnerable residents need assurances that someone will protect them.

For the past six years, the Alzheimer's Association has proposed that Massachusetts enact legislation that would require minimum standards of care and training for staff in nursing home's dementia special care units. In addition, the Alzheimer's Association has proposed that there be minimum dementia training requirements for all direct care staff working in nursing homes. Families cannot wait any longer for protection from care that can range from careless disregard to downright criminal.

The Executive Office of Elder Affairs is co-chairing a steering committee with the Alzheimer's Association to create an Alzheimer's State Plan that addresses wide-ranging aspects of diagnosis, education, safety, care and support. The finished plan is expected to call for the establishment of minimum standards for dementia care in the state's nursing homes.

Massachusetts is one of only six states in the nation with no regulatory oversight of specialized dementia care in nursing homes. What is even more illogical is that Massachusetts has enacted special protections for dementia care in assisted living and is in the process of developing training and practice requirements for home health aides caring for people with dementia. Why are nursing home residents — like those in Topsfield — left to fend for themselves?

Alzheimer's is one of the most significant health care challenges facing us. An estimated 5.4 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's; in Massachusetts, 120,000 people have Alzheimer's. They and their families are waiting for assurance that the quality of their care will no longer be in doubt.

We should all be outraged about the alleged incidents. Our enforcement officials should prosecute the culprits to the full extent of the law. And our elected officials should enact legislation to establish standards for care.

James Wessler

President/CEO, Alzheimer's Association MA/NH Chapter Watertown