National data on cases of abuse in America’s 15,600-plus nursing homes and other elder-care programs is hard to come by. But several recent studies by government investigators, advocacy groups, and the news media have chilling implications.
According to the National Ombudsman Reporting System (NORS), 14,258 (7.6 percent) of approximately 188,599 complaints reported to state ombudsman programs in 2014 involved abuse, gross neglect or exploitation. Another study of nursing home staff throughout the country found that 36 percent had witnessed at least one incident of physical abuse of an elderly patient in the previous year, 10 percent committed at least one act of physical abuse, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse. It gets worse: A CNN special investigation aired in February found that the federal government cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for mishandling or failing to prevent alleged cases of sexual assault and abuse from 2013 to 2016.
Given that 1.4 million aging adults already live in nursing homes and that the number of Americans 65-plus will double from 2010 to 2050, this issue will only become more pressing.
Keep a Watchful Eye
Abuse can encompass a wide range of behaviors, including physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse and neglect. Beyond the physical scars left by abuse, neglect and mistreatment have dangerous effects on the quality of life left to an aging person. Elders who have been abused have a higher risk of early death compared to those who have not been mistreated. If your loved ones are in a nursing home or other elder care program, watch for these warning signs:
- Broken bones or fractures
- Bruising, cuts or welts
- Bed sores
- Frequent infections
- Signs of dehydration
- Mood swings and emotional outbursts or unusual depression
- Reclusiveness or refusal to speak
- Refusal to eat or take medications
- Unexplained weight loss
- Poor physical appearance or lack of cleanliness
- Caregivers that do not want the patient to be left alone with others
- Sudden changes in financial situation or missing personal items
For a family member or caregiver choosing a care facility, the risk of abuse can be overwhelming and traumatic. The best way to prevent elder abuse is to choose the right care facility, which is not always easy given location or financial constraints. Nevertheless, here are factors to consider:
- Talk to residents or other patients. Observe their physical well-being and behavior. Also visit with residents’ families if possible, and learn whether they have experienced problems with the facility.
- Avoid facilities that have restricted access.
- Meet with key personnel (nurses, aides, social workers, administrators and doctors).
- Read contracts carefully before signing and look for a forced arbitration clause. The rights of your loved one may be denied even if they are abused.
- Visit frequently. Vary your visits to different times of the day and evening to assess the care provided during the day, night, weekends and holidays.
- Trust your gut. Pay attention to whether residents appear clean, well fed and free of bruises or other wounds. Also note if the environment is peaceful and feels safe.
- Document in writing the details about any problems or concerns.
- Compare facilities. Look up state survey reports.
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