SLAYTON — Since the May closure of Slayton Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, community members have grown more concerned about the future of elder care in southwest Minnesota.

Slayton attorney Lynn Johnson organized a listening session, which was hosted Thursday, with five state experts: Dan Pollock, Department of Human Services assistant commissioner for Continuing Care for Older Adults; Marie Dotseth, Department of Health assistant commissioner for Health Systems Bureau; Valerie Cook, Department of Human Services Manager of Nursing Facility Rates and Policy; Jason Swanson, executive director of the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging; and Sylvia Hasara, Department of Health Regional Ombudsman for Long-term Care.

"The future is geared toward collaborative community efforts," said Johnson, explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to hear ideas from community members about how to provide better elder care moving forward.

Pollock added that care for aging adults "has the power to make or break some of the parts of our community that are struggling the most."

The state officials explained a few policy issues that impact the quality of elder care throughout the state.

One significant struggle is maintaining a work force, Pollock said. Nursing homes, assisted living facilities and in-home care providers all struggle to find enough skilled workers.

Part of the reason for that may be low wages, he added. Statewide, administrative costs such as CEO salaries have gone up 26%, but nurses, custodial staff and cafeteria workers — who are doing the real work in long-term care facilities, he noted — have not seen an increase in wages.

Because of lack of staff, Cooke added, sometimes facilities have to turn away applicants, even though they may have empty beds.

The Department of Human Services and the Department of Health both deal with huge sums of money, Pollock said, and those figures aren't always perfect.

"Financial integrity is a huge concern," he said. "Auditors find millions of dollars of mistakes in the bills submitted to DHS."

Those skewed numbers, he said, are not a reason for legislators to cut nursing home funding, but they do add financial stress to the whole system.

Cooke told attendees that one of the most common complaints aired by local residents is that they were given very little warning of the closure of Slayton Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, requiring them to scramble to find new homes for their parents and other loved ones.

The reason for the short notice was state confidentiality laws, which are put in place to protect both residents and staff from the stress of wondering whether the facility will close. The laws also aim to prevent staff from finding other employment before the closure announcement, which would impact resident safety.

However, Cooke, added: "Maybe this is a policy we need to step back and review."

The state has a preference for non-institutionalized care while ensuring that funding goes to the right places and maintaining access for rural communities, Pollock said.

Some community members pointed out that although nursing homes do have drawbacks, assisted living also has limitations. Some assisted living facilities accept residents based on level of independence, don't take diabetic patients, or don't offer nighttime care or memory care. Some are just too expensive or too far away.

The state of Minnesota does not have a required number or ratio of staff. It does not legally define what services such as "memory care" must include. Although progress is being made in these areas, local residents expressed frustration that their options are limited.

All parties suggested ideas for adding to elder care in the community and surrounding areas.

"What we're hearing here tonight is collaboration," Swanson said. "We want to work together."