Understaffing forces Houlton Aged Care Center to end nursing services

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HOULTON, Maine – One of two skilled nursing facilities for seniors in the Houlton area is closing, citing a shortage of nurses.

The Gardiner Health Care Facility announced Thursday that it will close its 38-bed nursing unit by Oct. 30. Once the nursing wing is completely closed, the facility will expand its residential care unit from 10 beds to 40, with more private rooms.

The closure is due solely to a lack of qualified personnel. There aren’t enough nurses in the state to care for the aging population, and many nurses are aging themselves, a Gardiner facility official said. Currently, 27 residents are receiving care at the facility, and at this time, no one knows where most of them will go.

Nursing shortages have forced several Maine nursing homes to close over the past year. The Island Nursing Home and Care Facility in Deer Isle closed last fall, followed closely by the Country Manor Nursing Home in Coopers Mills and the Somerset Rehabilitation and Living Center in Bingham.

“A large percentage of nurses in this state are past retirement age. The ongoing pandemic has pushed many nurses into retirement as it has been difficult to meet needs with so few people to share the load,” said Mary Jane Richards, CEO of Gardiner Health Care Facility.

Even with high salaries and creative programming, Gardiner can’t find the staff needed to meet state and federal guidelines for a long-term care facility, she said. Getting enough nurses to cover the necessary shifts has been difficult, as it is in many other aged care facilities and hospitals.

Staff don’t know where everyone will go, but will work closely with residents and their families to place them as close to their current location or family as possible.

“There are a few other nursing homes in the area and several residents, due to their care needs, will be able to stay in the residential care unit,” Richards said.

Jim Brown, owner of Madigan Estates Nursing Home in Houlton, said he was unlikely to be able to accommodate most of those 27 residents. On Friday morning, Brown said 96 of the 99 beds in the skilled care wing were already occupied.

“It is certainly a difficult situation to live with and I sympathize with these families,” he said.

The next closest facilities would be Aroostook Health Center in Mars Hill (located approximately 28 miles north), Almost Isle Rehab and Nursing in Almost Isle (42 miles north), Katahdin Health Care in Millinocket (70 miles south ), or Cummings Health Care Facility in Howland (about 90 miles south).

A nursing unit differs from a residential care unit in that it requires registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, as well as certified practical nurses and several other qualified positions.

“People who need to stay in a nursing unit require more clinical care and monitoring,” Richards said. “People who stay in a residential care unit are more independent and don’t need as much clinical care.”

Staff are pleased that the facility continues to serve the region by expanding its residential care component, which allows many staff to maintain their current or similar roles, Richards said.

“Expanding residential care services will reduce our reliance on nurses, a profession that is struggling to meet demand in Maine and across the country,” Richards said.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been notified of the closure and is working with Gardiner representatives on relocation plans for any residents whose care needs cannot be met at Gardiner.

Gardiner staff, Maine DHHS and the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program will help residents and family members find new housing and care options. Information meetings for families and residents are planned.

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