The Record: Elderly care

The Record Editorial Staff

ANYONE WHO has a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer's should be able to have the peace of mind that the person is receiving the best-quality care available, 24 hours a day, and that every safety precaution regarding that care is being taken. Making those concerns less worrisome, and making the care for those suffering these ailments a top priority, is the essence of legislation passed with bipartisan support in the Assembly and state Senate. Governor Christie should sign it into law.

The focus of the bill concerns group homes that offer New Jersey families an alternative to institutional, long-term care centers for people with dementia or Alzheimer's. As the state's population continues to age, there is little doubt that the need for such homes will only increase. The legislation sitting on Christie's desk simply seeks to make sure those homes are properly regulated and adequately staffed, and are providing the quality of care they advertise.

The measure, more than two years in the making, was passed overwhelmingly by the Assembly in December and by the state Senate late last month. It calls for the group homes in question — currently classified as Class C boarding homes and regulated by the state Department of Community Affairs — to be reclassified as health care facilities falling under the supervision of the Department of Health. New rules for the group homes would have to be written to provide for the "health, safety and welfare" of dementia-care home residents.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, prime sponsor, wants to see the trans-fer of regulatory authorities take place because the Health Department is better-suited for the job, because its inspectors have medical training.

"It's more than just bricks and mortar that needs to be looked at here," Huttle said. "It's a question of the safety and well-being, and the Department of Health is better-suited to evaluate that."

The Record has long documented problems arising at the group homes. In a December 2012 article, The Record reported a series of citations and safety lapses at a chain of group homes formerly known as the Potomac Homes and now operating under the name Memory Care Living. One of those reported incidents involved a woman resident who broke a hip climbing out of a second-story window and another in which a male resident wandered into the middle of a busy intersection.

The company, which runs 13 of the 24 dementia care homes now operating in New Jersey — including eight in Bergen County — has faced the threat of fines of more than $100,000 related to incidents that occurred from 2010 to 2012. Even after a compromise was reached between Memory Care and the state regarding staffing and supervision, inspectors found the operator in violation of new rules and issued fines between December and May totaling more than $20,000.

This legislation makes sense. It also dovetails with the Christie administration's view of the group-home alternative as an option for families who must find housing and care for developmentally disabled adults.

Dementia is an illness that needs to be overseen by professionals with medical backgrounds. The governor should not wait, but should sign the bill that would transfer dementia-care group homes to the oversight of the Health Department, as Huttle describes it, the "appropriate agency" to monitor these homes.

This is not over-regulation, as some opponents might call it, just smart regulation. Christie should sign the bill.