The long-term care leftovers that earned a warning

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Elizabeth Leis Newman
Elizabeth Leis Newman
Today in the annals of Nursing Homes That Should Know Better, we turn our attention to a rural part of Tennessee.

There was an excellent Washington Post story over the weekend that ran about a food truck traveling through rural Appalachia. One of the families featured has five children who are hungry most of the time. The family is very, very poor. Luckily, mom has a job! She works for $8 an hour in the local nursing home where she toils in the kitchen. There are a lot of leftovers.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. According to the story, “A few weeks earlier, a boss had spotted her taking some of those leftovers home and threatened to put her on probation. So now Jennifer had returned to the trailer empty-handed, with five more dinners left to make for her children.”

This was a line that made fire flash out of my ears. If I had a broadcast news truck, you better believe I would wheel it on down to this particular nursing home, find the boss and stick a big ol' microphone in the boss' face asking for an explanation.

I expect I'd get some sort of mealy-mouthed response about F-tags and how the government is so mean to us and the importance of company policy and we could get in trouble with our surveyors and blah, blah, blah. And I know there is some truth in that.

But let's look at the larger truth.

For one, let's assume that the employee is telling the truth. Second, let's assume the boss who reprimanded this kitchen worker is not currently going to bed hungry.

All of that leads to this: If you see an employee who you know is supporting five children leaving with food, why would your first response be to threaten her?

Perhaps you do see smuggling day-old leftovers that the residents can't or shouldn't eat as stealing or putting your facility at risk, and that you cannot remain silent. Perhaps you feel that Jean Valjean going to prison for decades after the crime of stealing a loaf of bread also is a fair punishment, in which case, bon courage.

If you feel you cannot ethically look the other way, it is not rocket science to realize that perhaps engaging the employee in a conversation about WHY SHE IS TAKING THE FOOD would be the most logical and humane course of action.

I know, based on comments under a Real Nurse Jackie blog post in April, that some of you are with me in believing that feeding hungry children and adults is one of the most worthwhile endeavors we can make as a society. I understand people in large swaths of the country are hurting, and perhaps there is no long-term way to help the lady who works in the nursing home kitchen, or her children. Everyone struggles.

But I've spent enough time with people in long-term care facilities to know that they pitch in when they can — they buy a pair of shoes for the CNA whose footwear is in tatters and can't afford to buy new ones; they give out gift certificates to dedicated employees; they bake extra cookies for the nurse who is raising her grandchildren.

If you can't do that, and you can't let the kitchen employee take some leftovers, then you need to seriously examine whether $8 an hour is a living wage.

I believe that people want to do the right thing, but sometimes we have to be reminded. So here's the reminder. To a certain nursing home in Tennessee: You Can Do Better.

Elizabeth Newman is the senior editor at McKnight's Long-Term Care News. Follow her on Twitter at @TigerELN.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.