LEWISTON — As the head of the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, Brenda Gallant has heard the nursing home horror stories.

“When something happens, it is really distressing,” she said. “Waiting for a call bell to be answered, not having the care that you need. … Those are very distressing things for families.”

Her staff often works with families who want to file a complaint or who need help resolving a problem. They advocate for patients. They make sure people know their rights.

And they advise the best way to choose a nursing home so, maybe, patients can avoid that distressing situation in the first place.

“The average person is not really familiar with nursing home care,” Gallant said. “You just don’t have the knowledge and it’s overwhelming. You want to do the right thing, but it’s hard to know these things. It just is.”

Brenda Gallant, executive director of the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program.  Photo courtesy the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program

She recommends that patients and their families check out the information available online, including the federal Nursing Home Compare site. That site allows people to search by state, county and town, with ratings for each facility based on health inspections, staffing and quality. The site also offers in-depth information on the facilities’ inspections for the past three years, including investigators’ reports. And the site recently began pinning a special icon on nursing homes that have been cited for abuse. (There are three in Maine.)

She also suggests talking with people who have had experience with nursing homes, such as the patient’s doctor and the staff at the Ombudsman Program. Ombudsmen can’t recommend a facility, but they can provide information, answer questions, go along on tours and help families understand any investigation reports that have been filed for a nursing home.

But what Gallant recommends most is visiting nursing homes in person, for both an official tour and an impromptu visit.

“Look around,” she said. “What does the environment look like? Does it smell good when you go in? Are people engaged in activities? If it’s during a meal, that’s a real good time to visit. Are people being helped through the meal? What are the interactions that you see between staff and residents. … See what kind of response there is to call bells.”

While there, feel free to read the facility’s inspection reports. Nursing homes are required to make the reports available and they should be easily accessible — often stored in a binder — to anyone who wants to see them.

And when there, ask questions.

“If you have a loved one, if you have a concern, it’s always the right thing if something concerns you to ask questions,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a dumb question, especially when it concerns your loved one.”

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