Elder care forum

About 25 people brainstormed solutions to the care home labor shortage in Kearney on Tuesday. Participants in the gathering at the University of Nebraska at Kearney included, from left, Cheryl White, executive director of Cambridge Court; Beverly Clark, dean of academic education at Central Community College; David Stubbs, a member of CCC’s Board of Governors; and Dustin Favinger, director of the career center in UNK’s College of Business and Technology.

KEARNEY — It was an afternoon of brainstorming about a workforce shortage that will become worse as baby boomers grow old and care facilities scramble to hire staff to care for them.

About 25 care home professionals, economic development experts and educators gathered Tuesday at the University of Nebraska at Kearney to share ideas that might ease the labor shortage at care homes in the Kearney area.

The staffing crisis has become worse during the past 12 months.

Two major facilities opened within the past year — Brookstone Gardens in southwest Kearney and Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home in northeast Kearney.

With their hundreds of residents, the two large facilities have further stressed the already thin pool of nurse aides, cooks and housekeepers.

As a result of the labor shortage, Brookstone and CNVH have been unable to build their staffs to the levels they had planned, said Tami Moore, a professor of family studies at UNK and one of the organizers of the elder care brainstorming session.

Moore said each of the nursing home administrators she spoke to while organizing Tuesday’s event complained about staff vacancies. The 225-bed veterans’ home has been unable to accommodate as many residents as planned, and Brookstone hasn’t grown its medical and support staff to the 130 people it originally had planned, she said.

When it opened in July, Brookstone anticipated a $4 million payroll, while the veterans’ home was to have an annual economic impact of $38.5 million.

Moore, who is a member of the Kearney City Council, acknowledged the staffing shortage is becoming a critical economic challenge, but there’s a human element that also must be acknowledged.

“This is impacting one of our most vulnerable populations, the senior citizens,” she said.

Moore sees the staffing shortage worsening.

Soon, another major facility — a 140-unit senior living center — will be built next to Kearney Regional Medical Center. And, in Grand Island, two other major care home facilities are planned, one near the city’s new physicians’ hospital.

It wasn’t news to any of the care home professionals that filling all of the vacancies on their professional and care staffs has become an almost impossible challenge.

“For years, care centers advertised, ‘We offer eight-hour shifts,’ but today it’s a creative labor situation,” said Rex Moore, the human resources adviser for Good Samaritan Society. In the Kearney area, Good Samaritan Society operates St. John’s and St. Luke’s care homes, as well as facilities in Ravenna, Alma, Arapahoe, Grand Island and Hastings.

Moore said the days are past for staffing three eight-hour shifts per day. Today, he said, care facilities are piecing together schedules in which a few staffers might be available for eight-hour shifts, while the remainder can work only limited hours and at various times. He said the schedules are like jigsaw puzzles with care homes hoping the pieces fit together well enough so residents receive the care they need.

Karen Glesinger, the administrator of the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Albion, said she knows about being short of help. “I make beds. I do whatever the residents need. They come first.”

Glesinger told the gathering how her care home hired four nurses from Africa. It was a relief filling the vacancies, but it hasn’t always worked smoothly. One of the nurses was gone two weeks for a death in her family, while another was detained three weeks in her country waiting for the U.S. embassy to issue her a work visa. Glesinger said it was necessary to ask U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith’s office for assistance with the embassy.

Moore did not know how many people are employed at Kearney’s 10 or so nursing homes, but she anticipates they all will need larger staffs as the baby-boom generation, created when soldiers returned home in the 1940s after World War II, grows older and needs care. Caring for the explosion of senior residents will require scores of medical professionals and others with the heart and skills to do the hard work of nursing home care, participants at Tuesday’s session said.

Kearney’s strong economy and 2 percent unemployment rate aren’t helping the situation, Moore said.

Helping Moore to facilitate the session was Lisa Tschauer, director of UNK’s Center for Entrepreneurship. Tschauer led an idea-sharing exercise in which participants talked about strategies to ease the labor shortage. Ideas included short-term approaches, such as hiring retirees to supplement care home staffs, and long-term approaches, such as getting youths interested in care home careers and giving them classroom and hands-on experience as they enter college and need jobs.

Participants included city officials, Central Community College administrators and Board of Governors, Kearney High School directors, UNK specialists in child care, human resource management and health programs, and administrators of area care homes, memory care and assisted living facilities.

Moore said there won’t be easy or simple solutions, and that she anticipates follow-up sessions to discuss other facets of the care home challenge.

Cheryl White, administrator for the 40-apartment Cambridge Court facility in Kearney, offered some optimism. She employs 27, and at the moment, her only opening is for a cook.

“We’ve been so successful working with our college students’ schedules,” White said.