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Leaving Heritage with mixed emotions

Karen Hill has seen three-plus decades of changes in nursing homes, primarily families and potential patients wanting to stay in their homes as long as reasonably possible. She retires Friday from Heritage Living Center. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

By Sarah Smith

People used to go into nursing homes to die.

“It was a rarity that a person would get well and go home,” said Karen Hill, social services director at Heritage Living Center.

“Now it’s an ancient old belief.”

And deaths were especially hard on the staff, who became “extended family” to the patients they cared for, sometimes for years.

As Hill reaches her last day of work after 34 years and listens to one last plea from Heritage director Kurt Hansen to stay on, she’s feeling mixed emotions about saying goodbye to it all, while marveling how well Minnesotans do to keep the elderly at home for as long as possible.

“Families tell me putting a loved one into a nursing home is the hardest thing they’ve had to do,” Hill said, reflecting on one aspect that hasn’t changed.

It usually takes a health crisis to get the discussion started, between doctor and patient and patient and family members.

We’ll wait until after the holidays, families rationalize. Or simply ignore something they don’t wish to deal with.

In her tenure, Hill’s seen more than one generation of a family come in as a patient.

Today, nursing homes are constant hubs of activity.

Many are catering to short stays, rehabilitation for surgeries, strokes, heart attacks and other maladies of the aged.

“We had 156 discharges last year and 162 admissions,” Hill said.

Next spring the only nursing home in Hubbard County will undergo a much-needed facelift, Hill said. Other parts of the Heritage campus in Park Rapids have seen major building and remodeling.

The 1955 era nursing home has been eclipsed by an array of apartments, cottages, a memory care unit, assisted living and adult care facilities.

Nursing homes are very expensive, Hill acknowledges. Many families would rather spend the funds to keep their loved ones at home.

But when that isn’t possible a nursing home may be the last option for families worn down from the constant care of a senior citizen.

Hill has seen reluctance from families who can’t afford the 24/7 care or believe it’s their obligation to care for aging family members.

She urges families to look into all the help they can get from outside agencies and long-term care health policies.

“You don’t always have to rely on people paying out of their own pocket,” she said.

County Social Service agencies are great places to start and financial assistance such as elderly waivers or grants from the federal and state governments.

Programs such as Living at Home, Meals on Wheels and transportation programs exist specifically to aid the senior population in remaining independent.

As a result, Hill said nursing home populations are getting older.

The paperwork has exploded, she said, preventing nursing and dietary staff from ministering directly to patient needs.

“I can’t believe how much that has grown in my time here,” she said sadly. “We used to have a lot more time.”

The youthful-looking Hill and her semi-retired husband, still a substitute teacher, will do some traveling and spend time with a new grandson.

Many uncertainties loom ahead, she said, like the Affordable Care Act’s impact on eldercare.

Heritage held a reception for her Tuesday morning.

“It’s a rewarding job and I will miss it,” she said. “I ended up being here longer than I thought.”

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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