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VOL. 122 | NO. 96 | Thursday, May 24, 2007

Keep Eyes Open In Nursing Home Search, Lawyers Say

By Amy O. Williams

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"A lot of nursing homes do a great job for people. But if there comes a time when you see bedsores or there are not enough nurses on staff, (residents) don't have a voice. So we are their voices and we advocate for them."
- Alex Saharovich,
Partner at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz PLC

Attorney Valerie L. Smith advises families searching for nursing homes to approach it the same way they would a hotel: Don't be fooled by a fancy lobby.

"When you go into the nursing home to sign all the papers, you sit in a nice lobby, and then you go into a nice office, but you need to look beyond that," Smith said. "You need to notice how many nurses are around or if the place is clean."

Nursing homes in general are not pleasant places, Smith said, but it is important that families look beyond health concerns to make sure their loved ones are provided with the best care possible.

Smith said she and the other attorneys in the nursing home practice area of Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz PLC believe the public needs to be informed before entering the doors of a nursing home.

Smith, along with attorney Mark N. Geller, will offer a free seminar to inform people of just how important nursing home care is today from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center at 3663 Appling Road.

"We want the public to know more about nursing home care," Geller said.

Eyes wide open

Both Geller and Smith, along with firm partner Alex Saharovich, said they believe knowing what to look for in a nursing home can be vital.

Geller recalled a current case the firm is involved in of an elderly woman with serious mental issues who was admitted to a nursing home. The facility was aware of the woman's condition, Geller said, yet the night she was admitted, she was seen wandering around outside.

The woman continued to get out and wander the grounds until one night when another resident at the facility alerted staff that the woman was eating trash from a garbage can.

By the time the staff members were able to get the female resident back inside, she had choked to death on the garbage she had tried to eat.

That case currently is pending in Memphis.

Unfortunately, the attorneys in the firm said they deal with similar cases often.

Other cases the attorneys at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz are working on include a case in which an unattended bedsore led to a resident having her leg amputated, or the case where an Alzheimer's patient was not given adequate liquids and subsequently died from respiratory failure as a result of dehydration.

Learn how to spot trouble

"Nursing Home Care: What Every Family Should Know"
Nahon,Saharovich & Trotz PLC
Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, 3663 Appling Road
Today, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Attorneys Valerie L. Smith and Mark N. Geller

During the seminar, Smith and Geller will focus on what families need to know when selecting a nursing home, including things to look out for at a facility, the legal rights of residents and when litigation should be considered.

Some of the things Saharovich advises families to look for are bruises, infections and any unexplained weight loss.

"People need to realize that if a nursing home is not well-staffed, these things can happen," he said.

Sandy Smegelsky, the district ombudsman for the Memphis area and vice president for legal affairs for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), said she agrees with the attorneys that it is important for families to be alert when they visit their loved ones in a nursing home.

"You want to use all of your senses," she said.

Smegelsky supervises paid nurse investigators and trained volunteers who visit area nursing homes periodically and conduct investigations when complaints are lodged.

Another piece of advice the attorneys at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz encourage people to do is ask around, search the facility's name on the Internet and talk to other families, which can be the best source of information.

Smegelsky takes that a bit further and said to ask an alert resident how he or she likes the facility. Also, she said she recommends families visit at meal time to see how the food looks.

"That is very, very important because a lot of residents' lives revolve around those three meals a day and a snack," she said.

A voice for the voiceless

Smith and Geller said litigation should be the last resort.

The nursing home division at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz was established two years ago and now has four full-time attorneys in the firm's Memphis and Knoxville offices. The group is unique, Saharovich said, because all the attorneys in the division work closely on cases.

Smith, a former prosecutor for the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office, said she quickly is learning the medical side of things, but is able to rely partly on Geller, who was a biochemist before deciding to go to law school in 2000.

In addition to the lawyers at the firm, nurses and doctors also work as independent contractors to help the attorneys review cases.

But while the attorneys at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz want to make sure the public is aware of what can go wrong at a nursing home, Saharovich said not all nursing homes are bad.

"A lot of nursing homes do a great job for people," he said. "But if there comes a time when you see bedsores or there are not enough nurses on staff, (residents) don't have a voice. So we are their voices and we advocate for them."

Smegelsky agreed. She said the best way for families to narrow their selections of which homes to choose is to do research. She suggested starting with Medicare's Web site, www.medicare.gov. The site has a feature that allows people to see how different facilities rate compared to others.

And while the site does show the nursing homes that are not doing what they should, she said it also shows the facilities that are doing things right.

"We have a lot of good nursing homes that provide excellent care, but they never make the news," she said. "We have good caregivers that, day in and day out, give good care to really very ill and frail individuals."

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