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July 16, 2019

6/25/2019 7:30:00 AM
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day brings attention to crucial need in social services
Kayla Houp
Of The Lakeland Times

Local professionals and state legislators gathered for a luncheon at the Vilas County Courthouse June 14 in recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day as health department and social services professionals addressed the needs their departments face in light of a growing aging population and an absence of sufficient care providers.

"This topic, obviously you can tell from attendance, impacts everybody," Donna Rosner of Vilas County Social Services said. "Whether you're a community member going to the grocery store, whether you're a doctor in the ER, whether you're a levigator, whether you're a benefit specialist, whether you work in the hospital or a clinic, this affects everybody."

According to Rosner, Vilas County had 170 elder at-risk investigations in 2018 and Vilas County was third in the state per capita of elder at-risk investigations.

"We don't have the facilities," Rosner said. "We have minimal facilities for our elderly population, and that's what brings us here today, to talk about the lack facilities, the lack of caregivers, and our current population and how we can best meet those needs."

Meeting the needs of the county's elder and adult at-risk population has become more of a challenge, Rosner said. The panel included several professionals in the field, as well as personal testimonies to the shortcomings of the system by those who've experienced it.

Limited facilities

"A skilled nursing facility is what a nursing home is classified as, we're usually the first step after a hospital stay," Julie Russell, director of social services at Friendly Village, said. "We're the highest level of care that's provided second only to a hospital, so we get referrals for emergency placements." Russell said they also get a lot of referrals from people needing short-term rehab.

A lot of referrals came from Vilas County, but some of the general challenges in taking on those patients is in finding the right placement for them following their stay.

"We have to weigh the vulnerability of the patients we're already taking care of and our ability to provide the kind of supervision and care some of those people need that are in the hospital and have nowhere to go," Russell said.

Even if a patient successfully completes a rehab program, and if their financial status allows them to participate in a family care or private pay programs, there's still the issue of limited facilities, Russell stated.

"Our goal is that people are living as close to their home setting as possible," Russell said. "They're not allowed to stay, by state regulations, if they don't need us, but we really, truly want people to be where they need to be."

Russell said often enough, the beds in these facilities were full because there were so few facilities and not enough caregivers.

With more restrictions being put in place on nursing homes, facilities now require skilled nursing services in order for patients to stay.

"We have to find another place for them," Russell said. "So we all work together as a community to try and do that, but the barrier is nobody to take care of them or no place for them to go."

'There is none'

Aside from limited facilities, the issue of limited caregivers is a recurring problem which continues to test how the needs of Vilas County's aging population are met.

"It is a physical job, it is an emotional job. They are the ones that take your mothers and comb their hair every morning the way they would, if they could anymore," director of Milestone Senior Living in Woodruff Amy Lemke said.

"If our people don't show up, we don't provide the care because we don't have another person that might be there just to be able to go to someone's home to do that," Aspirus Help at Home supervisor Barb Austin explained.

While the panel agreed the caregivers the county does have are beneficial, the issue remains there are not enough of them.

"The core of this is our caregivers, in my opinion, and if we don't have them to provide care to the people that need it, you're going to continue to see the rise in the protective service calls." Austin said.

While limited caregivers proves to be an issue for Vilas County, another issue involbes fielding calls and questions from family members seeking to procure services for their family members traveling to or living in the area.

"My answer is, 'Here's the phone numbers of different agencies.' I get a call back, 'No one called me back.' I tell them, 'That's because there are no caregivers available,'" aging and disability specialist for the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Vilas County Lisa Kraus said.

Kraus said she gets these calls frequently and repeats the same message every time, stating "and then they become crises, they come with needing care and there is no care."

"When 40 percent of your population are over the age of 60, tell me where the workforce is," Kraus said. "There is none."

The goal of the luncheon was to create an awareness of the lack of facilities and in-home caregivers and its impact Vilas County's elder at-risk population.

Representatives of Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and United States Representative Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin, 7th District), as well as State Representative Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander, 34th Assembly District), were in attendance.

"I appreciate the legislators and their representatives being here and I hope that we can do something to change that," Lemke said.

Kayla Houp may be reached at

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