Nursing homes are for people who need help with health care for chronic conditions but do not need to be hospitalized. The decision to move to a nursing home may be triggered by a change in circumstances. A disorder may suddenly worsen, or an injury may occur. Function may deteriorate suddenly or slowly but steadily. Family circumstances may change, making care at home difficult.
“Nursing home” is sometimes used as a general term for any long-term care facility. But it specifically refers to facilities licensed by the state that can provide both basic and skilled nursing care. “Skilled” indicates that some of the care included can be provided only by trained health care practitioners. “Nursing” indicates that nurses provide most of the care in the facility. Nurses give residents their drugs, monitor disorders, supervise treatments, consult with doctors about care, and organize most of the activities in the nursing home. The nursing staff includes registered nurses (the most highly trained), licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, and a director of nursing, who oversees nursing care in the home.
Each nursing home also has a medical director, a doctor who oversees the medical care. In some nursing homes, the medical director is the only doctor who provides medical care. But in most nursing homes, several doctors, often working with nurse practitioners or physician assistants, provide care. Sometimes a doctor who has been taking care of the person before the move continues to provide care. Otherwise, the person chooses or is assigned a doctor. According to regulations, a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant must see every nursing home resident at least once every other month. Many residents see a health care practitioner more often because they need treatment for chronic disorders or they develop additional disorders, such as infections or confusion. Also, nurses may call a doctor to discuss problems and changes in treatments.
Many nursing homes provide other health care services, such as oxygen treatments and drugs or fluids given by vein (intravenous therapies). Almost all nursing homes provide rehabilitation, including physical, occupational, respiratory, and speech therapy. Many people are admitted to nursing homes specifically for rehabilitation, then are discharged to their home after several weeks.
Dentists and medical specialists, such as podiatrists, ophthalmologists, neurologists, or psychiatrists, may examine and treat residents on site. But most often, people with a specific problem have to be transported to a different site for treatment.
Some nursing homes have special units for people with dementia. These units are staffed by specially trained nurses. Many nursing homes provide hospice care for people who are dying.
Almost all nursing homes have a social worker on staff. Social workers help residents adjust to the home. They identify residents who are lonely and withdrawn and help residents, staff members, and family members communicate with each other. They may also help residents and family members make financial arrangements. For example, they may show family members how to apply for Medicare and Medicaid coverage.
Social workers often help coordinate the care provided by the different health care practitioners in a nursing home. These practitioners work together to enable each resident to function as well as possible and to have the best possible quality of life.
Although some nursing homes resemble hospitals rather than homes, many nursing homes are trying to change from a more institutional environment with rules and regulations to a more homelike environment that gives residents more control over their care. Some nursing homes permit pets, encourage residents to maintain existing hobbies or develop new ones, and provide many opportunities for contact between residents and people of all ages who live in the community around the nursing home. Providing this kind of environment is complicated because the residents of nursing homes are usually sick and frail. Many nursing homes have dining rooms, recreation rooms, beauty salons, patios, and gardens. All nursing homes provide recreational and social activities.
Nursing homes are highly regulated by the government. State health departments conduct surveys and inspections to monitor and evaluate quality in nursing homes. A copy of this evaluation is kept at the nursing home and can be reviewed by residents and their family members. Nursing homes also use other programs that monitor and help improve the quality of care.
Even though nursing homes are monitored and regulated by government, they vary considerably in quality, personality, and cost. So people or family members who are interested in a nursing home should try to get as much information as possible. They can ask the administrator of the nursing home to see the state's evaluation of the home. Similar information is available on the Internet. One evaluation called the Quality Indicator Report looks at how well a nursing home handles specific problems. These problems commonly develop or worsen in residents of nursing homes but can be prevented with attentive care. They include a decline in the ability to do daily activities, undernutrition, weight loss, pressure sores, incontinence, constipation, infections, depression, and use of too many drugs. Whether these evaluations are valid is debated. Nonetheless, they provide information that can help people better compare nursing homes.
Other important questions to ask the administrator include whether the nursing home is certified to provide Medicare and Medicaid coverage, how often care of residents is reviewed, what type of medical care is available, and whether residents and family members are included in the review of care. For some questions, the administrator may direct people to the nursing home's medical director or director of nursing.
Talking to other people who are familiar with the home is helpful. Such people include long-term care ombudsmen (who visit nursing homes and investigate complaints), doctors, clergy, family members of residents, residents, and employees of the nursing home. Some homes have resident organizations, consisting of family members and friends of residents who meet to discuss issues that come up in the nursing home. These organizations can provide family members of prospective residents with helpful information. However, making an unscheduled visit to a home for several hours is usually the best way to determine whether the quality of services is good and whether the home will be a good place for a loved one.
In the United States, Medicaid and private funds pay for most nursing home care. Medicare pays for rehabilitative care for a short time in certified nursing homes if skilled care is needed daily after a hospital stay lasting 3 days or more. People are eligible for up to 100 days of Medicare coverage as long as they show continued improvement. Medicare pays all costs for 20 days, then requires a co-payment for the remaining 80 days. After 100 days, payment is either with private funds or, if the person is qualified, through Medicaid.
Last full review/revision February 2009 by Paul R. Katz, MD