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Nursing home care reform activists rally at Capitol

Updated:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Advocates for the elderly held a rally at the state Capitol Monday, complete with 900 multicolored fabric dolls representing the people they say die every year from neglect and abuse in Oklahoma nursing homes.

About 70 people attended the rally, including some who lost family members who were residents in nursing homes. They called for a statewide overhaul of the system in charge of caring for the elderly.

``We didn't have the numbers today,'' said Wes Bledsoe, president of A Perfect Cause, a national advocacy group that sponsored the event. ``We've got to redouble our efforts. We may look small now, but look out.''

A 2001 federal report showed that 90 percent of Oklahoma's nursing homes did not meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' preferred minimum staffing levels between March 1999 and March 2000. And 58 percent failed to meet even the lowest federally recommended staffing levels.

The homes that did not meet those levels were more likely to be cited for health and safety violations, including those that caused actual harm to residents, the study found.

A Perfect Cause estimated the 900 preventable deaths based on news reports, testimony from long-term care representatives and investigations by state officials.

``There's a lack of interest today because people are getting tired of all the politics,'' said Jim Denny, Republican gubernatorial candidate, who spoke at the rally. ``But you have to start somewhere and we're going to start now.''

Denny, who's visited dozens of Oklahoma cities on his ``For the People'' tour, said lawmakers have not been accountable to the people on issues of long-term care reform.

In south Oklahoma City, residents and staff of Grace Living Center released 500 balloons to honor nursing home residents and the staffers who care for them. The release is part of National Nursing Home Week.

``At Grace facilities statewide, we have 1,900 people thriving in our care and 2,500 employees who are dedicating their lives to the care of these elders,'' Grace President Don Greiner said.

Grace Living Center has 24 nursing homes in Oklahoma.

``The image of nursing homes is poor, but it's completely one-sided. Unfortunately, all you ever hear about is the bad news,'' Greiner said.

``People do die in nursing homes. If they pass away, its not necessarily a bad experience.''

When Tulsa resident Ann Barnes lost her 93-year-old mother four months after she was admitted to a Jenks nursing home, Barnes knew she had to get involved in the reform movement.

``I started writing letters to lawmakers and support groups,'' said Barnes, who volunteers at A Perfect Cause events whenever she can. ``I feel like I had to do something, and that's all I knew how to do.''

Barnes' mother, Nella Margaret Burton, died after a bedsore on her heel became infected and the infection killed her. Burton was a resident in a Grace Living Center.

The center was fined $131,150 because of Burton's death, but has appealed the fine, records show.

Another volunteer, 68-year-old Louise Nix, said she was frustrated that more people didn't attend the rally.

``A lot of people are burying their heads in the sand on this issue,'' said Nix, who said her mother was abused in a nursing home years ago.

Bledsoe predicts an uphill battle for his group.

``There's a real bias against the elderly and frail in this country,'' he said. ``A lot of people didn't come out today because they're afraid to come forward or just want to put this whole issue out of their minds.''
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