The decision to trust a nursing home or similar facility with the care of a loved one is never easy. We trust that the facility we select will treat and care for our family member’s needs as we would with the added security and comfort of the staff’s training and expertise.
Sadly, that is not always the case. The National Council on Aging reports approximately 1 in 10 Americans over 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse, with estimates of abuse ranging up to 5 million annually. To compound the problem, only a small percentage of abuse cases are actually reported to the authorities. The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates the number could be as few as 1 in 14.
The elderly who live in residential facilities are particularly vulnerable to potential abuse or neglect. One reason for this is that many suffer from chronic conditions that limit their cognitive and/or physical functioning and make them particularly dependent on others. There is a real element of fear for the senior resident in reporting neglect because of that dependency.
“Elder abuse” is a broad term encompassing a range of negative behaviors including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and deprivation. Some examples we’ve seen are:
Delay in transferring to a hospital in the case of a medical issue. While the reasons behind that vary (age bias, underplaying symptoms, negligence) the result is the same – critical care delays in addressing serious threats to health.
Failure to enact appropriate fall precautions. Falls are a major cause of serious injury and decline in the elderly. When a facility lacks common-sense safeguards (such as bed rails or sensors), or fails to adequately screen a resident for injury after a fall, those can be serious care lapses.
Inadequate infection care. The elderly are particularly susceptible to infection with often ill-equipped immune systems to fight it. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common in the elderly and often go undiagnosed and/or treated by nursing homes.
Any of these examples could, and often do, result in death. In fact, elders who have experienced some form of abuse or neglect have a three-fold higher risk of death than their counterparts.
Nursing home abuse can happen in any facility at any time. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 2 in 3 individuals who serve as staff at nursing homes and long term care facilities report they have committed some form of resident abuse in the past year.
If you have a loved one in a care facility, here are some steps you can take to detect potential abuse and neglect:
Know the staff and facility. Make a point to talk with the staff when you visit. Be alert to signs that staff are working long hours or that the facility is understaffed. Look for professional credentials – are there registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs), or does the staff appear inexperienced and untrained? Familiarize yourself with the parent company. Is it a large, profit-driven entity or does it appear more patient-centered?
Visit as often as you can. The more supported and secure your loved one feels, the more likely you are to hear of problems. Make a point of asking them questions about their daily routine, including medication, food, recreation, care, etc. Be alert to how your loved one looks and feels. If you sense withdrawal or there is a reluctance to engage, look deeper.
Follow up. Don’t assume everything is being done as you would expect. Ask the staff about key care areas and for feedback on your loved one including any potential concerns. Don’t be afraid of voicing your own questions and concerns. When you do, try not to accuse, but ask for reasons if something hasn’t been done and try to work with the staff on solutions.
If you do suspect your loved one has suffered harm from some form of nursing home neglect or abuse, consulting an experienced attorney can be a good first step in determining your best course of action.