The General Assembly has approved four bills to better support Rhode Islanders affected by Alzheimer’s disease and to protect against elder abuse.

The bills, which will now all be sent to the governor, were all sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), who led the Senate’s Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation this year. That panel is slated to release its final report Friday.

“Alzheimer’s disease profoundly reshapes families, often for years. Its effects slowly rob people of the abilities they have had their whole lives. Providing the care that their loved ones need can be an enormous challenge for families. We must ensure that we are carefully and effectively using every available resource we have to ensure that every person affected by Alzheimer’s has the support and care they need,” said Senator Coyne, whose father died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

The Assembly approved legislation (2019-S 02232019-H 5178) sponsored in the Senate by Senator Coyne and in the House by House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) to establish a program within the Department of Health dedicated to Alzheimer’s disease, and create a 13-member advisory council that would provide policy recommendations, evaluate state-funded efforts for care and research and provide guidance to state officials on advancements in treatment, prevention and diagnosis. The bill is based on legislation signed into law last year in Massachusetts.

“This legislation will create a more cohesive approach to our state’s efforts to serve people with Alzheimer’s disease, which will ensure that our resources are used to their fullest effect. It will help Rhode Island make sure that our efforts are well coordinated and that we are doing everything we can to assist families touched by this devastating disease,” said Leader Shekarchi.

The bill requires the Department of Health to assess all state programs related to Alzheimer’s, and maintain and annually update the state’s plan for Alzheimer’s disease. It would also require the Department of Health to establish an Alzheimer’s disease assessment protocol specifically focused on recognizing the signs and symptoms of cognitive impairments, and appropriate resource information for effective medical screening, investigation and service planning. The bill would require caseworkers working with the Department of Elderly Affairs to be familiar with those protocols. Additionally, the bill would require a one-time, hour-long training on diagnosis, treatment and care of patients with cognitive impairments for all physicians and nurses licensed in the state.

Adoption of the bill would enable Rhode Island to qualify for federal funding that is available to help states with their efforts to support those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Also gaining final Assembly approval was legislation (2019-S 0302A2019-H 5141) sponsored by Senator Coyne and Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) to allow the spouses or partners of patients residing in Alzheimer’s or dementia special care unit or program to live with them, even if they do not meet the requirements as patients themselves.

“A person who needs care for Alzheimer’s should not be separated from his or her spouse on top of it. Allowing couples to remain living together will help them maintain their relationship, their connection and their personal dignity,” said Representative McNamara, who is chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee.

Lawmakers also gave their final approval to legislation (2019-S 0603A2019-H 5573) sponsored by Senator Coyne and Rep. David A. Bennett (D-Dist. 20, Warwick, Cranston) expanding a law that requires people who have reasonable cause to believe a person over age 60 is being abused, neglected or mistreated to report it to the Division of Elderly Affairs, which will report the incident to law enforcement if appropriate and intervene.

Currently, health care providers and numerous types of workers who come into contact with elderly or disabled people in health care facilities are required to report suspected abuse or neglect within 24 hours.

The legislation adds a section of law requiring reporting of suspected abuse, exploitation, neglect or self-neglect of people over age 60, regardless of whether they live in a health care facility. It also expands the list of those required to report suspected abuse to include physician assistants and probation officers and protects employees who report abuse from liability (unless they are found to be a perpetrator) or negative consequences at work for reporting abuse or neglect.

“No one should hesitate to report abuse of an elder or someone who is disabled. This bill will better protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Representative Bennett, who works as a psychiatric nurse.

On June 20, the Assembly passed a third bill sponsored by Senator Coyne and Rep. Patricia A. Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick) to require a nationwide criminal background check for anyone seeking guardianship or limited guardianship of another adult, even temporarily. Under the bill (2019-S 0845A2019-H 6114), anyone who is found to have been convicted or plead nolo contendere to charges for a variety of crimes, including violent crimes or crimes involving abuse or neglect of elders, would be disqualified. The bill is being recommended by the Senate’s Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation.

“While most guardians are selflessly dedicated to helping those in their care, guardianship creates significant opportunities to take advantage or abuse extremely vulnerable people. No person who has an abusive or violent past should be given that level of control over an elderly or disabled person and their affairs. This bill will protect senior citizens and disabled people,” said Representative Serpa.

There are an estimated 23,000 Rhode Islanders age 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s disease — about 17.4 percent of that population, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, the rate of Alzheimer’s is expected to increase. In just six years, the number is expected to increase to 27,000. In the United States, nearly one in every three seniors who die has Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

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