Assisted living (AL) exists for one very simple reason: most older people don’t want to live in a nursing home. They want privacy and autonomy, which nursing homes seldom offer. Despite all the efforts to put the “home” back into nursing homes, and despite the culture change movement that sought to transform the structure and organization of nursing facilities, most people still don’t want to live in a nursing home. One consequence is that assisted living facilities today are filled with people who not that long ago would have lived in a nursing home: they are old, they have multiple chronic conditions, and just about half of them have some degree of dementia. But assisted living facilities were created with the idea that they would be strictly non-medical residences. That’s a problem.
The tension between the idealized image of the assisted living resident and the actual assisted living resident increasingly translates into a struggle over what services AL can legitimately provide and who will regulate them. The rules are set by the individual states, so what happens in California is not the same as what happens in Alabama. In some states, only a licensed nurse can give a patient a medication. In other states, aides can give out medications. In some states, aides can supervise a patient taking a medication—they can remind the person he is supposed to take a pill and watch him doing it, but they can’t take the pill out of a bottle and give it to him. In other states, aides aren’t even allowed to do that. Periodically, state legislatures try to change the rules about just how medical AL should be. That’s what’s happening in Massachusetts today. Proposed legislation would allow AL to provide certain medical services that are currently unavailable: treating skin problems, providing wound care, giving injections, and administering oxygen. And predictably, conflict has erupted over whether the rules should be changed and if they are, who should be responsible for ongoing monitoring.
The controversy over whether and to how great an extent AL should be able to provide nursing care is usually framed as a concern about the medicalization of assisted living. The whole idea of AL is that it is much more like a person’s home than like a hospital and the concern is that if residents can have medical procedures on site, this will undermine AL’s home-like essence. But is that really the way to think about this issue?
After all, if an older person lives in his own residence, say the house where he has lived for the past fifty years, and his spouse gives him his medication, no one would object that his home has turned into a medical facility. Ditto if a family member applies skin cream to a rash. And does it turn the home into a hospital if a personal care attendant wheels in an oxygen tank and hooks it up to a mask or to nasal prongs worn by the older individual? Family members learn to give insulin injections. They are taught how to give artificial nutrition through a gastrostomy tube and to administer intravenous medication. They even operate all kinds of pumps and monitoring equipment. In fact, the report, Home Alone, issued a few years ago, found that almost half of all family caregivers reported that medical tasks formed part of their responsibility, including some pretty complex interventions.
Now nursing aides aren’t the same as family members. They take on whatever responsibilities they are assigned because it’s their job, not out of love or compassion or filial obligation. But the point is that if family members routinely perform these sorts of duties, in most cases with minimal instruction and no supervision, then surely aides hired by assisted living facilities could be expected to do precisely the same things, perhaps with a smidgeon more instruction and some degree of ongoing supervision. In any case, the act of putting on a bandage or attaching a bottle of Ensure to a feeding tube doesn’t automatically turn AL into a medical facility. But failing to letting aides do some of the tasks that people would expect their families to provide if they lived in their own home turns AL into a very inadequate sort of a home indeed.
Sometimes I think we draw the wrong conclusions about who can do what because we assume that the person who performs a given task should have a thorough understanding of the technology he or she is using. That would be nice, I suppose, but how many of us who drive a car have the slightest understanding of how the transmission works or the difference between a generator and an alternator? In the case of people taking medicines or getting treatment for a rash, we shouldn’t confuse administering treatment with monitoring effectiveness. I don’t see why the same person necessarily has to do both.
Years ago, I read a study of the use of psychotropic medications in the nursing home. The authors were shocked to discover that the nurses who gave out powerful medications had no idea of their side effects and couldn’t identify one if their life depended on it. I thought at the time and I still think today that the researchers’ dismay was misplaced. Someone should have been monitoring those nursing home residents: what was shocking was that nobody was. But did it have to be the person who doled out pills? Her job was to make sure that Sally Smith got pills that had been prescribed for Sally Smith—and not pills that had been prescribed for Stuart Smith. Her job was to make sure that Sally Smith got her pills three times a day and not twice or four times and that she actually swallowed the pills. Her job was to report to a physician if Sally Smith became very sleepy or was more confused that usual or developed difficulty with her walking—but not to figure out whether the pills were causing those problems.
The same goes for assisted living today. Of course people should be able to get simple “medical” treatment on site, just as they would if they had stayed in their previous home. Of course staff should be able to administer any treatment that family members routinely provide without an RN or an MD degree. Yes, staff need to learn how to do these things. And yes, a system needs to be in place to assure that patients—in this case we are talking about patients—have adequate monitoring of their medical problems. But let’s separate administration of treatment from ongoing assessment of the medical response to treatment. And let’s not transform the character of AL by subjecting it to the same rules as a nursing home. The way forward is to provide on site medical treatment while designing new rules that relate separately to the training and supervision of aides who are part of the staff and the provision of ongoing medical care by physicians and nurse practitioners who are not.