Tagged Nursing Homes

Medicare Takes Aim At Boomerang Hospitalizations Of Nursing Home Patients

“Oh my God, we dropped her!” Sandra Snipes said she heard the nursing home aides yell as she fell to the floor. She landed on her right side where her hip had recently been replaced.

She cried out in pain. A hospital clinician later discovered her hip was dislocated.

That was not the only injury Snipes, then 61, said she suffered in 2011 at Richmond Pines Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Hamlet, N.C. Nurses allegedly had been injecting her twice a day with a potent blood thinner despite written instructions to stop.

“She said, ‘I just feel so tired,’” her daughter, Laura Clark, said in an interview. “The nurses were saying she’s depressed and wasn’t doing her exercises. I said no, something is wrong.”

Her children also discovered that Snipes’ surgical wound had become infected and infested with insects. Just 11 days after she arrived at the nursing home to heal from her hip surgery, she was back in the hospital.

The fall and these other alleged lapses in care led Clark and the family to file a lawsuit against the nursing home. Richmond Pines declined to discuss the case beyond saying it disputed the allegations at the time. The home agreed in 2017 to pay Snipes’ family $1.4 million to settle their lawsuit.

While the confluence of complications in Snipes’ case was extreme, return trips from nursing homes to hospitals are far from unusual.

With hospitals pushing patients out the door earlier, nursing homes are deluged with increasingly frail patients. But many homes, with their sometimes-skeletal medical staffing, often fail to handle post-hospital complications — or create new problems by not heeding or receiving accurate hospital and physician instructions.

Patients, caught in the middle, may suffer. One in 5 Medicare patients sent from the hospital to a nursing home boomerang back within 30 days, often for potentially preventable conditions such as dehydration, infections and medication errors, federal records show. Such rehospitalizations occur 27 percent more frequently than for the Medicare population at large.

Nursing homes have been unintentionally rewarded by decades of colliding government payment policies, which gave both hospitals and nursing homes financial incentives for the transfers. That has left the most vulnerable patients often ping-ponging between institutions, wreaking havoc with patients’ care.

(Story continues below)

“There’s this saying in nursing homes, and it’s really unfortunate: ‘When in doubt, ship them out,’” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a short-run, cost-minimizing strategy, but it ends up costing the system and the individual a lot more.”

In recent years, the government has begun to tackle the problem. In 2013, Medicare began fining hospitals for high readmission rates in an attempt to curtail premature discharges and to encourage hospitals to refer patients to nursing homes with good track records.

Starting this October, the government will address the other side of the equation, giving nursing homes bonuses or penalties based on their Medicare rehospitalization rates. The goal is to accelerate early signs of progress: The rate of potentially avoidable readmissions dropped to 10.8 percent in 2016 from 12.4 percent in 2011, according to Congress’ Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

“We’re better, but not well,” Grabowski said. “There’s still a high rate of inappropriate readmissions.”

The revolving door is an unintended byproduct of long-standing payment policies. Medicare pays hospitals a set rate to care for a patient depending on the average time it takes to treat a patient with a given diagnosis. That means that hospitals effectively profit by earlier discharge and lose money by keeping patients longer, even though an elderly patient may require a few extra days.

But nursing homes have to hospitalize patients. For one thing, keeping patients out of hospitals requires frequent examinations and speedy laboratory tests — all of which add costs to nursing homes.

Plus, most nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor that is usually the lowest-paying form of insurance. If a nursing home sends a Medicaid resident to the hospital, she usually returns with up to 100 days covered by Medicare, which pays more. On top of all that, in some states, Medicaid pays a “bed-hold” fee when a patient is hospitalized.

None of this is good for the patients. Nursing home residents often return from the hospital more confused or with a new infection, said Dr. David Gifford, a senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs at the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group.

“And they never quite get back to normal,” he said.

‘She Looked Like A Wet Washcloth’

Communication lapses between physicians and nursing homes is one recurring cause of rehospitalizations. Elaine Essa had been taking thyroid medication ever since that gland was removed when she was a teenager. Essa, 82, was living at a nursing home in Lancaster, Calif., in 2013 when a bout of pneumonia sent her to the hospital.

When she returned to the nursing home — now named Wellsprings Post-Acute Care Center — her doctor omitted a crucial instruction from her admission order: to resume the thyroid medication, according to a lawsuit filed by her family. The nursing home telephoned Essa’s doctor to order the medication, but he never called them back, the suit said.

Deborah Ann Favorite holds a photograph of her mother, Elaine Essa. The nursing home and Essa’s primary care practice settled a lawsuit brought by the family. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Without the medication, Essa’s appetite diminished, her weight increased and her energy vanished — all indications of a thyroid imbalance, said the family’s attorney, Ben Yeroushalmi, discussing the lawsuit. Her doctors from Garrison Family Medical Group never visited her, sending instead their nurse practitioner. He, like the nursing home employees, did not grasp the cause of her decline, although her thyroid condition was prominently noted in her medical records, the lawsuit said.

Three months after her return from the hospital, “she looked like a wet washcloth. She had no color in her face,” said Donna Jo Duncan, a daughter, in a deposition. Duncan said she demanded the home’s nurses check her mother’s blood pressure. When they did, a supervisor ran over and said, “Call an ambulance right away,” Duncan said in the deposition.

At the hospital, a physician said tests showed “zero” thyroid hormone levels, Deborah Ann Favorite, a daughter, recalled in an interview. She testified in her deposition that the doctor told her, “I can’t believe that this woman is still alive.”

Essa died the next month. The nursing home and the medical practice settled the case for confidential amounts. Cynthia Schein, an attorney for the home, declined to discuss the case beyond saying it was “settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” The suit is still ongoing against one other doctor, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Dangers In Discouraging Hospitalization

Out of the nation’s 15,630 nursing homes, one-fifth send 25 percent or more of their patients back to the hospital, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of data on Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website. On the other end of the spectrum, the fifth of homes with the lowest readmission rates return fewer than 17 percent of residents to the hospital.

Many health policy experts say that spread shows how much improvement is possible. But patient advocates fear the campaign against hospitalizing nursing home patients may backfire, especially when Medicare begins linking readmission rates to its payments.

“We’re always worried the bad nursing homes are going to get the message ‘Don’t send anyone to the hospital,’” said Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit based in San Francisco.

Richmond Pines, where Sandra Snipes stayed, has a higher-than-average rehospitalization rate of 25 percent, according to federal records. But the family’s lawyer, Kyle Nutt, said the lawsuit claimed the nurses initially resisted sending Snipes back, insisting she was “just drowsy.”

After Snipes was rehospitalized, her blood thinner was discontinued, her hip was reset, and she was discharged to a different nursing home, according to the family’s lawsuit. But her hospital trips were not over: When she showed signs of recurrent infection, the second home sent her to yet another hospital, the lawsuit alleged.

Ultimately, the lawsuit claimed that doctors removed her prosthetic hip and more than a liter of infected blood clots and tissues. Nutt said if Richmond Pines’ nurses had “caught the over-administration of the blood thinner right off the bat, we don’t think any of this would have happened.”

Snipes returned home but was never able to walk again, according to the lawsuit. Her husband, William, cared for her until she died in 2015, her daughter, Clark, said.

“She didn’t want to go back into the nursing home,” Clark said. “She was terrified.”


KHN’s coverage of these topics is supported by
John A. Hartford Foundation
and
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Medicare Takes Aim At Boomerang Hospitalizations Of Nursing Home Patients

“Oh my God, we dropped her!” Sandra Snipes said she heard the nursing home aides yell as she fell to the floor. She landed on her right side where her hip had recently been replaced.

She cried out in pain. A hospital clinician later discovered her hip was dislocated.

That was not the only injury Snipes, then 61, said she suffered in 2011 at Richmond Pines Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Hamlet, N.C. Nurses allegedly had been injecting her twice a day with a potent blood thinner despite written instructions to stop.

“She said, ‘I just feel so tired,’” her daughter, Laura Clark, said in an interview. “The nurses were saying she’s depressed and wasn’t doing her exercises. I said no, something is wrong.”

Her children also discovered that Snipes’ surgical wound had become infected and infested with insects. Just 11 days after she arrived at the nursing home to heal from her hip surgery, she was back in the hospital.

The fall and these other alleged lapses in care led Clark and the family to file a lawsuit against the nursing home. Richmond Pines declined to discuss the case beyond saying it disputed the allegations at the time. The home agreed in 2017 to pay Snipes’ family $1.4 million to settle their lawsuit.

While the confluence of complications in Snipes’ case was extreme, return trips from nursing homes to hospitals are far from unusual.

With hospitals pushing patients out the door earlier, nursing homes are deluged with increasingly frail patients. But many homes, with their sometimes-skeletal medical staffing, often fail to handle post-hospital complications — or create new problems by not heeding or receiving accurate hospital and physician instructions.

Patients, caught in the middle, may suffer. One in 5 Medicare patients sent from the hospital to a nursing home boomerang back within 30 days, often for potentially preventable conditions such as dehydration, infections and medication errors, federal records show. Such rehospitalizations occur 27 percent more frequently than for the Medicare population at large.

Nursing homes have been unintentionally rewarded by decades of colliding government payment policies, which gave both hospitals and nursing homes financial incentives for the transfers. That has left the most vulnerable patients often ping-ponging between institutions, wreaking havoc with patients’ care.

(Story continues below)

“There’s this saying in nursing homes, and it’s really unfortunate: ‘When in doubt, ship them out,’” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a short-run, cost-minimizing strategy, but it ends up costing the system and the individual a lot more.”

In recent years, the government has begun to tackle the problem. In 2013, Medicare began fining hospitals for high readmission rates in an attempt to curtail premature discharges and to encourage hospitals to refer patients to nursing homes with good track records.

Starting this October, the government will address the other side of the equation, giving nursing homes bonuses or penalties based on their Medicare rehospitalization rates. The goal is to accelerate early signs of progress: The rate of potentially avoidable readmissions dropped to 10.8 percent in 2016 from 12.4 percent in 2011, according to Congress’ Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

“We’re better, but not well,” Grabowski said. “There’s still a high rate of inappropriate readmissions.”

The revolving door is an unintended byproduct of long-standing payment policies. Medicare pays hospitals a set rate to care for a patient depending on the average time it takes to treat a patient with a given diagnosis. That means that hospitals effectively profit by earlier discharge and lose money by keeping patients longer, even though an elderly patient may require a few extra days.

But nursing homes have to hospitalize patients. For one thing, keeping patients out of hospitals requires frequent examinations and speedy laboratory tests — all of which add costs to nursing homes.

Plus, most nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor that is usually the lowest-paying form of insurance. If a nursing home sends a Medicaid resident to the hospital, she usually returns with up to 100 days covered by Medicare, which pays more. On top of all that, in some states, Medicaid pays a “bed-hold” fee when a patient is hospitalized.

None of this is good for the patients. Nursing home residents often return from the hospital more confused or with a new infection, said Dr. David Gifford, a senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs at the American Health Care Association, a nursing home trade group.

“And they never quite get back to normal,” he said.

‘She Looked Like A Wet Washcloth’

Communication lapses between physicians and nursing homes is one recurring cause of rehospitalizations. Elaine Essa had been taking thyroid medication ever since that gland was removed when she was a teenager. Essa, 82, was living at a nursing home in Lancaster, Calif., in 2013 when a bout of pneumonia sent her to the hospital.

When she returned to the nursing home — now named Wellsprings Post-Acute Care Center — her doctor omitted a crucial instruction from her admission order: to resume the thyroid medication, according to a lawsuit filed by her family. The nursing home telephoned Essa’s doctor to order the medication, but he never called them back, the suit said.

Deborah Ann Favorite holds a photograph of her mother, Elaine Essa. The nursing home and Essa’s primary care practice settled a lawsuit brought by the family. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Without the medication, Essa’s appetite diminished, her weight increased and her energy vanished — all indications of a thyroid imbalance, said the family’s attorney, Ben Yeroushalmi, discussing the lawsuit. Her doctors from Garrison Family Medical Group never visited her, sending instead their nurse practitioner. He, like the nursing home employees, did not grasp the cause of her decline, although her thyroid condition was prominently noted in her medical records, the lawsuit said.

Three months after her return from the hospital, “she looked like a wet washcloth. She had no color in her face,” said Donna Jo Duncan, a daughter, in a deposition. Duncan said she demanded the home’s nurses check her mother’s blood pressure. When they did, a supervisor ran over and said, “Call an ambulance right away,” Duncan said in the deposition.

At the hospital, a physician said tests showed “zero” thyroid hormone levels, Deborah Ann Favorite, a daughter, recalled in an interview. She testified in her deposition that the doctor told her, “I can’t believe that this woman is still alive.”

Essa died the next month. The nursing home and the medical practice settled the case for confidential amounts. Cynthia Schein, an attorney for the home, declined to discuss the case beyond saying it was “settled to everyone’s satisfaction.” The suit is still ongoing against one other doctor, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Dangers In Discouraging Hospitalization

Out of the nation’s 15,630 nursing homes, one-fifth send 25 percent or more of their patients back to the hospital, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of data on Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website. On the other end of the spectrum, the fifth of homes with the lowest readmission rates return fewer than 17 percent of residents to the hospital.

Many health policy experts say that spread shows how much improvement is possible. But patient advocates fear the campaign against hospitalizing nursing home patients may backfire, especially when Medicare begins linking readmission rates to its payments.

“We’re always worried the bad nursing homes are going to get the message ‘Don’t send anyone to the hospital,’” said Tony Chicotel, a staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a nonprofit based in San Francisco.

Richmond Pines, where Sandra Snipes stayed, has a higher-than-average rehospitalization rate of 25 percent, according to federal records. But the family’s lawyer, Kyle Nutt, said the lawsuit claimed the nurses initially resisted sending Snipes back, insisting she was “just drowsy.”

After Snipes was rehospitalized, her blood thinner was discontinued, her hip was reset, and she was discharged to a different nursing home, according to the family’s lawsuit. But her hospital trips were not over: When she showed signs of recurrent infection, the second home sent her to yet another hospital, the lawsuit alleged.

Ultimately, the lawsuit claimed that doctors removed her prosthetic hip and more than a liter of infected blood clots and tissues. Nutt said if Richmond Pines’ nurses had “caught the over-administration of the blood thinner right off the bat, we don’t think any of this would have happened.”

Snipes returned home but was never able to walk again, according to the lawsuit. Her husband, William, cared for her until she died in 2015, her daughter, Clark, said.

“She didn’t want to go back into the nursing home,” Clark said. “She was terrified.”


KHN’s coverage of these topics is supported by
John A. Hartford Foundation
and
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Crossing Paths: A Baby and His Grandfather

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

In a photo essay, Thad Russell and Josephine Sittenfeld chronicle the end of life of a beloved father and the beginning of life of their new baby.

Nov. 20 – Thad

I’ve left my very pregnant wife, Jo, and our little daughter, Polly, to drive up to northern Vermont to retrieve my 86-year-old father and bring him back to Providence.

But when I get there, Dad is hunched over in his chair in the living room. He looks thin and tired, unshaven, confused, cold, short of breath.

In a weak voice he says that his lungs aren’t working and he can’t get enough air. With his arm hanging limply over my shoulder I move him toward his bedroom. I take off his shoes and glasses, turn off his light, and kiss him goodnight. I go to bed shaken to the core.

Dad grew up on a farm, played football in high school, went to M.I.T. to study engineering and architecture, and had a long career designing and building houses.

He became an expert skier back in the 1950s when downhill skiing was rebellious and dangerous.

And now, maybe for the first time ever, he doesn’t want to get out of bed.

I call my friend Bill, an emergency room doctor. He tells me quietly and firmly, “Call 911 and get him to a hospital ASAP. Don’t think about it. Just do it.”

This is the last time my father will ever see his land or be in his own house or sleep in his own bed. In fact, it is the last time he will sleep in any bed that isn’t in a hospital or nursing home. It’s the last time he will live without the assistance of a walker or a wheelchair, a professional caregiver or an adult diaper.

At the hospital, Dad’s cardiologist puts it bluntly. “Your father needs a new heart, and he’s not going to get one. I’ve used up my bag of tricks. Have you thought about hospice?”

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jo

That tiny, rapidly fluttering shape amid the gray static — even though I’ve been through ultrasounds before with my first child, the evidence of the life inside me is still awe-inspiring. I feel excited and tearful.

Nov. 28 – Thad

Dad’s vital signs are bad. He has trouble breathing and now needs oxygen full-time. It’s Thanksgiving morning, and Dad is taken by ambulance from the nursing home to the Miriam Hospital. I meet him in the emergency room, abandoning Jo to cook her first turkey and prepare for a house full of in-laws. The emergency room staff does a battery of tests and confirms what we already know: Dad is suffering from late-stage heart failure.

But after a few hours, he’s released, and I bring him home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Dec. 25 – Thad

Amazingly, Dad is able to be at our house on Christmas Day. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, or even Jesus for that matter. But he does like a good turkey dinner.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 9 – Jo

I wake up at exactly midnight with contractions. Around 6 a.m. the contractions get closer together. Polly wakes up and thinks it’s funny that I’m mooing like a cow. Thad and I take Polly to a neighbor’s house and head to the hospital.

I have another killer contraction in the lobby. I’m on all fours on the floor, moaning. People are staring.

Once we finally get to the room, I get into the tub. It feels good to be in the water, but the contractions are painful and intense — after the tub I’m on a ball, then on the bed, then standing, then on the toilet, then back on the bed.

Thad is on the phone in the next room trying to coordinate a urology appointment for his dad when all of a sudden things intensify. The baby’s head starts crowning, and it burns like hell. The nurse runs out to get Thad. And with a few more pushes our baby is out.

When they hand him to me, he’s big and grayish, but pretty quickly turns pink.

It’s intense and beautiful and crazy and amazing.

Baby Curtis lies on my chest, still connected through the umbilical cord, and Thad and I just take him in.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 13 – Thad

Dad is excited to meet his first grandson  —  and a little confused. He keeps calling him Matt, and asks when we have to give him back.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Jan. 24 – Thad

A nurse calls to tell me that Dad has fallen. I meet him in the E.R., again. He looks pretty beat up and has a big gash on the top of his head.

The test results worry the doctors.

And yet he survives  —  for days, then weeks, then months.

I visit Dad as often as I can and for as long as I can. I pick him up and we go on little field trips: to doctors’ appointments, to get new eyeglasses, to get his hearing aids cleaned, or to our house for dinner.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Occasionally, I find Dad asleep in his room, his face lit by the light of CNN Headline News. Some nights I stay with him for quite a while, rubbing his feet, watching him breathe and wondering what he is dreaming about.

I feel conflicted  —  it’s not that I want Dad to die, but I sometimes wonder if this is the way he ever wanted to live.

Dad can’t walk, get dressed or complete most basic daily routines without assistance, but his spirits are good.

In July, Dad has a bad fall, spends another week in the hospital. I call my siblings and tell them it’s time. We’re going to start hospice.

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell

Aug. 8 – Jo and Thad

Dear Family & Friends –

We are sad to report that Sam died Friday evening. He was 87 years old.

For the past year, Dad continually impressed us with his dignity, toughness and overriding will to live. He  —  and we  —  were rewarded with some distinctly good days that we will never forget.

But last week, he and his heart decided it was time. He retired early one evening, declaring that his bed felt “wonderful,” and started his long sleep.

In the end, he passed quietly and gracefully, surrounded by his family (including his bouncy and bubbly baby grandson Curtis, who played happily at the foot of his bed), and a wonderfully compassionate team of rotating attendants and nurses.

Ever the solar animal, he waited until just after sunset to pass.

With love and thanks,

Thad & Jo

Photo

Credit Josephine Sittenfeld and Thad Russell


Thad Russell and Josephine Sittenfeld are photographers who live in Providence, R.I., and teach at the Rhode Island School of Design. More of their work can be found at thadrussell.com and josittenfeld.com.

Finding Ways to Keep Patients at Home

Photo

Credit Getty Images

My patient was a proudly elegant woman in her 70s who lived alone. Her Parkinson’s disease had so severely restricted her ability to move that it would take her hours to get dressed in the morning. And leaving the house was virtually impossible, so she had to rely on neighbors and friends from her church community for help with shopping.

She was adamant that she wouldn’t want aggressive treatment to keep her alive. She’d been hospitalized many times, and she told me she wouldn’t want to take a hospital bed that would be better used for someone else. So she dutifully completed an advance directive that made her wishes clear. It said that she would not want to be kept alive on a breathing machine, and that she wouldn’t want cardiopulmonary resuscitation if her heart stopped. She also wouldn’t want to be fed through a tube if she was no longer able to eat. What was most important to her, though, was staying at home and avoiding a nursing home.

As a palliative care physician, I always urge my patients to complete advance directives. These are legal documents that tell doctors and family members what treatment they do and don’t want if they’re ever unable to make decisions for themselves. That’s important, because if I don’t know what my patients want, the default is to do everything to keep them alive, which typically results in unnecessary and costly treatment. Indeed, one of the most often-cited arguments for advance directives is the fact that 25 percent of Medicare spending is for people in the last year of life.

When my patient developed a cough and a fever, likely a result of pneumonia, she became too confused to make decisions for herself. Thanks to her advance directive, her family knew that she didn’t want aggressive treatment, and we knew that she wanted to stay home. So we arranged for short-term daily nursing visits and enough support so that, with additional help from her family, she was able to remain at home as she wanted.

I thought that she would get worse without aggressive treatment in the hospital, and that we would enroll her in hospice, so I was surprised when she began to improve. Soon she was able to make decisions for herself and even returned to the same level of independence that she’d had before she became sick. That’s when it became obvious to me that advance directives have their limits.

My patient lived, as many people with chronic, serious illnesses do, on a thin ledge of independence. The smallest nudge — a few missed medication doses, the loss of just a little support — left her entirely vulnerable. In my patient’s case, that nudge came two months later, when her neighbors ran into financial problems and their daughter, who had been doing the grocery shopping for my patient, had to take an after-school job. My patient valued her independence more than anything, so whenever her neighbors and her out-of-state family checked on her, or when we called her, she told us all that she was fine.

For three weeks, my patient subsisted on nothing but white rice, because that was all she had in the house. When her grand niece called us and asked us to check on her, we sent a social worker and a nurse to visit her. We found her housebound, surrounded by garbage, with no clean laundry and no toilet paper.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t do enough to keep her safe at home, so she went to live in a nursing home, where she spent the last two months of her life. An advance directive had helped her stay out of the hospital, as she had wanted. And perhaps it even made a bed available for someone who needed it more, as she’d hoped. But that piece of paper didn’t help her to live out her final months with the sort of comfort and dignity that she deserved.

When we talk about advance directives and reducing costly and unnecessary treatment at the end of life, we should also be talking about ways we can provide more support. We need to make sure that people like my patient have access to the kinds of care that can help them remain safely and comfortably at home.

Now when I help my patients complete an advance directive that defines the treatment they don’t want, we also discuss what support they’ll need in the future. I talk with my patients and their families about what’s going to be necessary to keep them safe and comfortable in their homes today, and next month and — if they’re lucky — for the next few years.

Those sorts of discussions are essential, but they’re not enough. We also need to revise the way we think about advance directives. Advance directives help reduce health care costs at the end of life by avoiding aggressive treatment, but that’s not the most compelling argument for them. It’s not enough to reduce what we spend on aggressive treatment at the end of life; we also need to spend those resources in better ways.

For someone around my patient’s age, the average cost of a hospitalization is about $13,000. So Medicare should have been willing to spend $13,000 to keep her safe and comfortable at home. That sum would have been more than enough to pay for a visiting nurse to continue to check on her after she recovered from pneumonia and a home health aide to help her with bathing and dressing. And it could have paid the girl next door to do her grocery shopping so a frail elderly woman didn’t need to subsist on white rice because it was the only food she had.

We should have been able to provide all of that help. My patient was adamant that she didn’t want to spend her last days of life in a hospital, taking up a bed that someone else could use. Let’s make sure that when people like her forgo costly treatment at the end of life, they get something in return.

Dr. David Casarett is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and the author of “Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana.”

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Using the Arts to Promote Healthy Aging

Photo

Credit Paul Rogers

Throughout the country, the arts are pumping new life into the bodies and minds of the elderly.

Two summers ago, a remarkable documentary called “Alive Inside” showed how much music can do for the most vulnerable older Americans, especially those whose memories and personalities are dimmed by dementia.

The film opens with a 90-year-old African-American woman living in a nursing home being asked about her life growing up in the South. All she could say in response to specific questions was, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”

But once she was fitted with an iPod that played the music she had enjoyed in her youth, her smile grew wide and her eyes sparkled as vivid memories flooded her consciousness. She was now able to describe in detail the music and dances she had relished with her young friends.

At another nursing home, a man named George with advanced dementia refused to speak or even raise his head when asked his name. He too was outfitted with an iPod, and suddenly George came back to life, talking freely, wiggling to the music in his wheelchair and singing along with the songs he once loved.

The Music and Memory project that provided the iPods was the inspiration of a volunteer music lover named Dan Cohen, and has since spread to many nursing homes and facilities for the aged around the country. Alas, not nearly enough of them. Medicaid, which fully covers the cost of potent drugs that can turn old people into virtual zombies, has no policy that would pay for far less expensive music players. So the vast majority of nursing home residents who might benefit are deprived of this joyous experience.

Nonetheless, across the country, the arts in their myriad forms are enhancing the lives and health of older people — and not just those with dementia— helping to keep many men and women out of nursing homes and living independently. With grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institute on Aging, incredibly dedicated individuals with backgrounds in the arts have established programs that utilize activities as diverse as music, dance, painting, quilting, singing, poetry writing and storytelling to add meaning, joy and a vibrant sense of well-being to the lives of older people.

Photo

Walter Hurlburt, 90, decorates rooms at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a retirement facility where he lives.

Walter Hurlburt, 90, decorates rooms at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a retirement facility where he lives.Credit

Through a program called EngAGE in Southern California, 90-year-old Walter Hurlburt, who once made a living as a sign painter, now decorates rooms at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a retirement facility where he lives, with lovely oil paintings he creates from pictures he finds in magazines and books. Mr. Hurlburt regularly attends classes on various art forms at the residence where, he told me, “I’m always learning something new.”

His buddy at the residence, Sally Connors, an 82-year-old former schoolteacher, surprised herself by writing and directing a screenplay that was performed by fellow residents. Then, with Dolly Brittan, 79, a former early childhood educator, they both surprised themselves by writing their life stories in rap and performing their rap memoirs on a stage for at-risk teenagers they were mentoring.

Both she and Ms. Connors said their newfound involvement with the arts has made them feel decades younger.

Tim Carpenter, the executive director of EngAGE, is now working to expand this approach to senior living in other cities, including Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Raleigh, N.C. His goal is to create a nationwide network of programs for seniors that keep them healthy, happy and active through lifelong learning in every conceivable art form, enabling them to live independently as long as possible.

As in Burbank, Mr. Carpenter is promoting the development of arts colonies in senior residences where residents can study and create art in all its forms and where they can see their artistic creations come to life on a stage.

Dr. Gene D. Cohen, a gerontologist at George Washington University who died in 2009, was a staunch advocate for the mental and physical benefits of creativity for the elderly. He directed the Creativity and Aging Study, a controlled study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts at three sites, including Elders Share the Arts in Brooklyn, N.Y., that showed after only a year that the health of elders in the cultural groups stabilized or improved in contrast to a decline among those in the control groups.

In a film called “Do Not Go Gently,” Dr. Cohen, who founded the Creativity Discovery Corps, featured an architect who, at age 96, submitted a plan for redeveloping the World Trade Center site. Dr. Cohen pointed out that creativity challenges the mind and results in the formation of new dendrites, the brain’s communication channels.

At 26 different facilities in the Washington, D.C., area, 15 teaching artists work with seniors in centers where they live or visit regularly. Janine Tursini, director of Arts for the Aging in Rockville, Md., seeks to “get at what best jazzes up older adults.” Groups of about 20 older adults get involved in what she calls “art making” — music, dance, painting or storytelling.

Ms. Tursini said the N.E.A.-sponsored study showed that when older people become involved in culturally enriching programs, they experience a decline in depression, are less likely to fall and pay fewer visits to the doctor. In another study among people with Alzheimer’s disease, a sculpting program improved the participants’ mood and decreased their agitation even after the program ended.

“The arts open people up, giving them new vehicles for self-expression, a chance to tell their stories,” Ms. Tursini said. “The programs capitalize on assets that remain, not on what’s been lost.”

Naomi Goldberg Haas created the Dances for a Variable Population program to get older adults dancing. People who haven’t moved in years, even those who can no longer stand, can participate. Young professionals and older dancers go to various sites — libraries, churches, senior centers — where elders gather and encourage them to “move more.”

“Movement enriches the quality of their lives,” Ms. Haas said. “It’s absolutely healing. Balance, mobility, strength — everything improves.”

Social engagement, which nearly all these programs provide, has been repeatedly found in major population studies to prolong life and enhance healthy aging. Clinically, the programs have been linked to lowered blood pressure, reduced levels of stress hormones, and increased levels of the “happiness hormones” that are responsible for a runner’s high.

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