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Family Service expands its nursing assistance
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Family Service expands its nursing assistance

Agency boosts services despite limited resources

Maria Mullen, third from left, conducts a training session for home health aides at JFS headquarters in Elizabeth.
Maria Mullen, third from left, conducts a training session for home health aides at JFS headquarters in Elizabeth.

Things are never static at Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey. As staff members of the Elizabeth-based organization prepare for their annual fund-raiser gala on Tuesday, Dec. 1, they were also engaged in training new home health aides and launching a program that depends on such aides — and on the much-appreciated donations the gala brings.

The main tools for that program are scales. A recent grant of $20,000 from the Grotta Foundation has enabled the JFS team of seven nurses to help 30 of their elderly clients with congestive heart failure monitor their well-being. The method is very simple: weighing themselves every day.

Karen Winter, the director of the agency’s nursing services, explained that a daily weight increase of as much as three pounds can be a red flag that the body is retaining fluid, a symptom of the disease. Without the right medication adjustment, that can land one repeatedly in the hospital.

The Grotta grant provides for the nurses to spend two one-hour sessions educating the selected clients on how to track their weight and what to do if they see a significant change.

The agency, part of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, at the moment provides home services to around 130 elderly or disabled clients. That includes more than 30 with congestive heart failure. Winter said they would like to include all of them in the program, if they can get the money. While the federation has maintained the level of funding it allocates to JFS, donation income has dropped.

In the meantime, they have selected very carefully the people they judge most likely to benefit from the new service. “Some of our clients are too set in their ways to follow new instructions,” Winter said. “We have to choose the ones who are able to adjust and to remember what to do.” With the right support, these people can avoid re-hospitalizations. “And most of them really don’t want to land up again in the emergency room,” Winter said.

Because they don’t have the time to visit their clients frequently, the nurses are dependent to some extent on the agency’s 28 home health aides, who spend two hours with the clients two or three times a week. The aides work under the authority of the nurses; they may not administer medication, but they can ask questions, remind the clients to take their medicine, note how they are eating, and report back on what they observe.

That eyes-and-ears function is a crucial one, said nurse Maria Mullen, who is responsible for training the aides. As a coordinator with the Union County Home Care Consortium, in addition to her nursing work with JFS, she selects trainees from those who apply and then provides them with 84 hours of training. In addition to monitoring clients’ health, the aides do shopping and errands, laundry and light housekeeping, help with personal care, and maybe take clients for walks.

“Some people go by the book and do only what is required, but others just fall in love with their clients,” Mullen said.

More of the kind of housekeepers and home aides JFS provides are needed, as the number of chronically ill seniors rises and efforts mount to help them stay in their homes rather than be institutionalized. And — even with the present unemployment rate — they are in short supply.

Mullen introduced her trainees at a recent training session at JFS headquarters. They were gathered around a bed, learning how to change a catheter bag.

There was one man in the group; most of the trainees were middle-aged, people who have worked as caregivers or house cleaners and want to increase their skill level and earning potential. A few said they would have liked to become nurses, and this is the next best option. A few — including the two youngest women in the group — have looked after disabled or sick family members, liked doing it, and want more expertise.

“I used to have a good pool of candidates, but it’s becoming harder to find people like these, with the right attitude and abilities,” Mullen said. “I don’t really know why.” A higher pay scale might help — they earn slightly more than $9 an hour — but there again, the agency is limited by what it can afford, and grants like the one from Grotta are becoming hard to obtain.

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