There are lies, damn lies and statistics. That’s how Mark Twain is famously credited with characterizing research numbers.

James M. Berklan

It’s hard to argue with that cynicism well over 100 years later, given the way findings and data have been mangled in recent times. That’s why it’s always critical to peek behind the curtain when new survey or poll announcements are made. Who commissioned the research? Who was actually polled? And the actual wording of questions can tell you more than raw numbers themselves. If this isn’t part of your critical-thinking tool bag already, you’re way behind the curve, I’m afraid. 

So the first observation today is to give a critical look at any announcements or new findings. That doesn’t mean torching everything in sight if you don’t agree or understand, but rather pause and at least try to gain more clarity. 

The second observation is this: It’s time for responsible parties to be truly alarmed about the future of the nursing home industry. Survey findings released by the American Health Care Association Thursday make that abundantly clear.

Although AHCA is hardly a neutral player in this research game, we’ll take it as a good-faith participant in this case. This is easy to do when numbers speak for themselves. 

Only 1% of the more than 1,100 nursing home and assisted living operators said they are currently fully staffed. AHCA findings break down how dire workforce levels are and illustrate how much agency nursing is used, and so forth. But those aren’t the most frightening figures.

That distinction goes to the number 58, as in the 58% of respondents who said they are restricting admissions due to lack of staff. Think about that. Nearly 3 in 5 operators in such a critical sector are turning away needy patients. And this at a time when census is historically low and businesses are struggling — even failing — because of it.

This isn’t about Sun City snowbirds being told they have to live on the ninth fairway instead of the third tee box. Or that there isn’t good Wi-Fi in their apartments. These are frail elderly individuals, and many might have nowhere else to turn in the area.

Yet well more than half of the places that can take care of them are saying, “Sorry, no can do. Please try down the road.” Maybe far, far down the roads.

Nursing home advocates have warned that access could become restricted, even as national average occupancy languishes at least 10% below pre-pandemic levels.

There aren’t enough heads in beds to keep the lights on and the medication carts rolling, so that puts jobs at risk.

But then you can’t allow more residents in because there aren’t enough staff for them. It is a Teufelskreis, or “devil’s circle,” as the Germans call it.

With not enough staff to allow more beds to become occupied, census is actually being held down.

That’s what you call economic strangulation.

Sure, this isn’t affecting every facility in the country the same, and some are doing well. It’s a classic case of the good/rich getting better/richer while others struggle. If they happen to be average or marginal, they could be worrying about their operating mortality. This is troubling on many levels with a growing number of needy elderly. 

With the addition of each new name on the “going out of business” roster — and that list is alive and growing, make no mistake — overseers are going to have to do better.

Whenever people are seeking critical care and it’s widely not available, that’s a recipe for crisis. And if that 58% figure doesn’t recede soon or, heaven forbid, rises, it will be a wicked dish indeed. For a struggling industry, its patrons and the people they’re supposed to be serving.

And for a society that is watching it happen before its very eyes.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.