Reflections of a nursing home administrator

December 3, 2009
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Elliott D. Cahan, a retired administrator, gives in his book, A Place Like Home, candid reflections on running facilities for for-profit and not-for-profit operators in Maryland
Reflections of a nursing home administrator

“I could write a book about that.” How often have you as a long-term care administrator, DON, or other manager said that about the work you do? Not long ago, a nursing home administrator did just that, publishing his “candid reflections” on running facilities for for-profit and not-for-profit operators in Maryland. Long active in long-term care organizations based in that state, including the state chapter of the Wellspring Organization, Elliott D. Cahan decided a couple of years ago to leave the profession and move to Israel. In his book he discusses the challenges posed by the multi-faceted balancing act demanded of administrators, the futility of government long-term care policy, and the unique satisfactions offered by the administrator’s role. Cahan elaborated on all of these points in an interview with Richard L. Peck, former Long-Term Living Editor-in-Chief.

Peck: Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

Cahan: There are so many times at the end of a workday when you say to yourself, “I could write a book about this.” But, of course, most administrators don’t have the time. I was able to find the time after retiring.

Peck: How did you get started as an administrator?

Cahan: I graduated college with a B.A. in political science, which taught me nothing other than how to read a newspaper. I like working with people, I like marketing, politics, the law, and human resources and, more to the point, my father served on the licensure board for nursing home administrators in Maryland. Once I asked my father what nursing home administrators do and he referred me to a few to get some answers. One, Gary Hibbs, who became my preceptor, took me to a nursing facility dayroom where the activities director was conducting a music therapy program. I found it very inspiring to see residents participating as best they could and making the most of the life they had left. Gary said that he viewed it as his personal challenge to make sure that residents always maintained their dignity and had something worth living for.


A Place Like Home, by Elliott D. Cahan. Available here.

Peck:

Your comments in your book, though, present quite a mixed picture—principally, that the administrator’s job is a juggling act. Would you elaborate?

Cahan: All the disparate parties involved in resident care—residents, families, staff, regulators, owners—come at it from different angles, but ultimately, it’s the administrator who is holding the bag for providing the care. Put it another way, it’s like a stack of cards and you’re never quite sure which card is holding up the stack—take away the DON, the nursing assistant, the RN, and will the whole thing collapse? It’s a precarious business. And yet I always found it interesting that Maryland had no requirement for a state surveyor to have worked in a long-term care facility. It’s a job that is more difficult than many people think.

Peck: Would you say that an administrator’s principal focus would be on staff?

Cahan: I think a principal role for the administrator is to clear the way of all red tape and roadblocks so that staff will have an environment for success. If you do this, they will provide good care. You can’t pay the highest wages, although they should be competitive, but basically if you provide an environment where staff feel appreciated and want to show up every day, good care will result. Specifically, that means giving them the supplies, the equipment, including maintenance and repair, and in general eliminating frustration from their daily work.

Peck: By the same token, what do administrators need?

Cahan: They need to be empowered by the owner, the board, and the corporate office. They need more than “sometimes” authority—for example, having no control of the budget but being held accountable for spending nine bucks for doughnuts at a staff meeting.

Peck: How does reimbursement (or lack of it) impact on the job?

Cahan: You’re expected to give Ritz-Carlton care at Motel 6 prices. That’s another juggling act—reimbursement vs. regulation. Maryland had the second highest Medicaid reimbursement rate in the country when I was there, but that could change dramatically every year due to political forces beyond my control. What would I do if I were an administrator today? Probably lose a lot of sleep.

Peck: What’s your view of government policy on long-term care in general—remediable or beyond hope?

Cahan: I had frustration in Maryland when I expected that a new Republican administration coming in after more than 30 years of Democratic control would bring a broader view and much-needed change, but it didn’t happen. Long-term care has to be looked at not just as pieces and parts, as nursing homes or assisted living, but as a broad continuum of services. Policy needs to have a wider range. But the political system in the U.S. today makes it hard to tackle big policy issues.

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