LACONIA — Michelle Farry, 29, worked as a cook and a dog groomer before she discovered her true calling in September as a unit aide at St. Francis Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
Now Farry, of Laconia, works on the front lines as a licensed nursing assistant, after on-site experience and accelerated training paid for by Catholic Charities, which operates seven nonprofit nursing homes in New Hampshire. Next week two more unit aides start work at St. Francis, and more applied this weekend, said administrator Brenda Buttrick.
“I feel rewarded and happy I chose this path," Farry said. "I love my residents and co-workers. I love what I do now. I can’t say that about half the jobs in my life.”
Through its Pathways program, Catholic Charities hopes to establish a fast track and renewable pipeline for feeding nurses aides into a system that depends on them to operate and accept new patients. Without enough LNAs and nurses at all levels, nursing homes can’t fill the beds that have become empty because of COVID’s new safety and quarantining requirements, and those left vacant after many long-term care residents perished from COVID-related illness.
In New Hampshire, a resilient state compared to the rest of the country, roughly 85 percent of COVID-related deaths occurred at nursing homes, among vulnerable frail elders with chronic, debilitating conditions. But here and across the country, the pandemic pointed to a long-simmering problem in health care: the shortage of professional caregivers, especially nurse’s assistants.
Catholic Charities’ long term care facilities and other Lakes Region nursing homes including Belknap County Nursing Home, Mountain Ridge in Franklin, Golden View in Meredith and Laconia Rehabilitation Center are on-the-job-training sites for entry level nursing and caregiving careers. In partnership with NH Needs Caregivers, a federally-funded program to bring 700 new LNAs to the state, they hope to work toward balancing the state’s equation between those who exit nursing assistant profession and those who come in.
“We need the LNAs. They’re really very, very important to the care of residents. They provide the majority of the care residents get. Without them we can’t operate our building," said Buttrick, who currently employs roughly 15 LNAs for 38 residents at St. Francis. “We can’t admit people if we don’t have staff to take care of them.”
It’s a heady challenge. Between January and October of 2020, during the pandemic that brought much of the world to a standstill and hit nursing homes hardest, New Hampshire lost 709 nursing assistants who chose not to renew their licenses – further straining the nursing home system that had always struggled to attract enough help. Health care and hospital administrators estimate that number is now well over 1,000.
It’s an issue taken seriously, through stepped up programs to attract newcomers in high school, and at many stages throughout life. People attracted to the personal rewards of helping fragile people with many of their fundamental needs – such as eating, dressing, moving and using the bathroom. They also fill perhaps the most basic and essential need of all: human companionship. It’s a commodity of inestimable value, especially for people nearing the end of life.
For Farry, it was a timely discovery that altered her trajectory: “I saw an ad in the paper. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I tried many things out, but I’ve always enjoyed taking care of people, especially older people,” she said.
Her mother was a certified nurse’s aide. As a child and teenager, Farry spent weekends at the private nursing home where her mom worked, helping residents play bingo, and play the piano “sometimes terribly,” she said. “We’d go for walks. We’d collect golf balls” on the course behind the building. They watched movies and drew pictures.
In September 2020, Farry started work part time as a unit aide, while Catholic Charities paid for her 110-hour accelerated course in Concord through LNA Health Careers, which she completed in less than a month. As a unit aide at St. Francis, she brought the lunch and dinner menus to residents and took their orders. She took them to visit with their family members at the front of the building. She helped with activities and helped them clean up their rooms. She passed out snacks and drinks. “Getting to know the residents, that was the best part,” Farry said.
Farry started her LNA classes later that fall, and became licensed in December. She experienced her new role during the COVID outbreak in January 2021. “Just being there for them was the best part,” Farry said.
Now she works the 3 to 11 p.m. shift, helping residents get ready for bed, transferring them from bed to chair, and taking them to the restroom – hands-on tasks that require a licensed nurse’s assistant. The care provided is more in-depth, but her favorite part is still getting to know them – “what they like and like to do – music, dancing, what they went through in their life. I love hearing their stories,” said Farry, who works with five to nine residents and feels as if she’s friends with most. “St. Francis is like a community. You get to know everyone,” she said. “I feel rewarded and happy I chose this path.”
Buttrick is hoping to attract enough people (at least four or five) who want to become licensed LNAs so she can hire an LNA Health Career instructor to offer classes at the nursing home. Prior LNA classes offered through LNA Health Career fizzled because of lack of enrollment. This will prevent students from having to travel to Manchester or Concord.
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com.