Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A day with Chiquita Smith

An Activist for Nursing Home Seniors

GAA interns Nuri Han and Scott Kelly had the pleasure of speaking with a GAA supporter, Chiquita Smith. This Brooklyn activist defends the rights of nursing home residents. Every month Chiquita makes personal visits to several of the 26 nursing homes in her borough. After talking with any residents she knows and getting a sense of the place, she calls the Board of Health or the nursing home director to make sure her concerns about residents’ care are heard. This inspiring work is made even more impressive by the fact that Chiquita is 87 and blind.

“It’s personal”

Over the years Chiquita became interested in elder rights through visits to her family members and friends in nursing homes. “It is personal,” she says about her decision to check up on possible abuses by these institutions that housed her friends and family. Of a more general concern is what she calls the “shifting of seniors”—the trend to move seniors from their apartment or house to an institution, such as a nursing home. She wonders whether older persons living in nursing homes feel comfortable in such unfamiliar surroundings and whether they face abuse or neglect in the institutions.

Chiquita makes it a point to visit a nursing home if one of her friends or relatives has recently moved there. She’s even visited nursing homes as distant as Washington, DC, or Philadelphia.

“Are these people being treated like human beings?”

Whenever Chiquita visits a nursing home, one major question guides her; “Are these people treated like human beings?” To assure that they are, she first engages the residents, asking whether they are properly dressed, not wearing mismatched or dirty clothes. She touches the residents’ hands and talks with them. They always smile at her. They all have stories to tell and they enjoy speaking with other people. She also asks if weekly schedules for the dining hall and for recreational activities are posted. Some nursing homes might only let their residents go outside on rare occasions, left instead sitting and idle inside—a lonely, monotonous existence. Some nursing homes even allow outside businesses, such as a “dollar store,” to come in to offer a selection of items for the residents to buy.

Chiquita checks possible institutional abuses by the nursing home. She said that some nursing home residents with larger pensions are taken advantage of by family and nursing home administrators. Recently, she has focused on how the nursing home may ignore residents’ right to vote in elections. She asks whether they had easy access to a ballot; almost none did. Chiquita believes no one is too old to vote. She contends that the nursing home must facilitate the voting process for its residents. She also tries to talk with the nurses and, if possible, the administrators to make sure they know someone is watching. If the situation is bad, she will call the Board of Health, or make another surprise visit to check up. At her local church she shares her observations with her senior group called “The Golden Circle.” It’s essential for her to share her findings with as many people, through as many channels, as possible.

“Day of Visitation”

Chiquita wants everyone to know that even a little gesture, like a card or phone call, makes a difference for the residents, who may rarely hear from family or friends. She proposes a “Day of Visitation” for those who are interested in these issues. Simply go visit the residents, talk with them, and touch their hands—you’ll be surprised by how appreciative the residents will be! She advises visitors to send cards to the residents after you visit!

On the institutional level, she hopes every nursing home will create a specific “Friends and Family Day” to encourage monthly visits. She suggests people contact their elected officials so he or she will understand the process and politics better. Too often these officials are unaware of the situation at nursing homes.

“Go and visit!”

If you’re interested in learning more about nursing homes, Chiquita suggests calling the Board of Health to get the official list of nursing homes. Then, go visit! Ask for literature on the place and about its policies. Ask questions about how it works, talk with the residents. What are they doing? Where are they? How do they look? It’s not so much a matter of asking the right questions; it’s about letting the administration know that someone is watching so they become more aware and alert to these issues. And, of course, it’s about providing companionship to those who are often neglected. Lastly, Chiquita suggests publicizing what people observe or learn, through Global Action on Aging, your religious institution or any other means you may have.

Inform yourself, engage yourself! Be active like Chiquita! She has been at it for years now and has no plan to stop!