Christie scores big for elder care | Editorial

Star Ledger Editorial Board

Imagine placing an aging parent or grandparent into a dementia care home, and you find out one day that they had wandered through an unlocked door or injured themselves by climbing out a window.

And imagine when you investigate which state agency is responsible for supervising this level of ineptitude shown by those responsible of your parent's care, you are informed that it was the Department of Community Affairs.

Make no mistake, DCA is an indispensable agency in its areas of strength – such as enforcing building codes and radon abatement and amusement ride inspection - and it undoubtedly applies some rigorous standards to these group home facilities under the antiquated Rooming and Boarding House Act of 1979.

But the DCA is probably no more suited to supervise a dementia care facility beyond making sure its smoke detectors have new batteries.

Recognizing the flaws in this arrangement, Gov. Christie wisely pulled the plug on it Monday.

He signed into law a bill that requires licensure for dementia care facilities, while bringing their oversight under the authority of the Department of Health by reclassifying them as "health care facilities" rather than Class C boarding homes.

For many seniors, group homes are a better alternative to institutionalized, long-term care, but they needed adequate oversight from medical professionals, not from someone who stops by to see whether the window locks work.

Accordingly, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) authored a comprehensive fix two years ago, and after ignoring signals of executive indifference as recently as July, she managed to push it across the goal line.

The bill ensures that the facilities are properly licensed and regulated, adequately staffed, and provide the level of care these homes advertise. And only DOH inspectors with medical training can assure these standards are met, or objectively determine whether residents need a higher level of care at another facility.

"This is about more than inspecting homes, or keeping the floors clean and the exits illuminated," Huttle said. "This is a question of well-being, and the DOH is best suited to supervise that area.

"But the real issue is that most people who go into these homes are often in the early stages of dementia. There is no way of knowing how long they can stay there before they need 24-7 care."

That is one of the areas where the bill is still a work in progress: The protocol to determine when a resident should be moved to a more inclusive facility hasn't been set. Also, the 24 dementia care homes in the state still haven't been told what the new staffing requirements might be.

But Huttle is right. There are different types of dementia (Alzheimer's accounts for 50 to 60 percent of diagnoses) and stages of cognitive decline. Experts predict Alzheimer's will be epidemic in the next generation, which will present an enormous economic challenge.

So as the boomer generation ages, caregiving will be a booming business. According to the CDC, nearly 30 percent of caregivers for adults over age 60 are looking after someone with cognitive impairment or dementia.

We have barely begun a long, national battle against a progressive, debilitating illness that has no cure. The last thing we need is doubt that our parents are receiving proper care from competent facilities, but this bill removes some of that doubt.

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