Nursing Home Assaults: Our Vulnerable Seniors

By Dan Brown posted 12-26-2013 06:03 AM

Abuse of our most vulnerable populations is shocking and disturbing, and unfortunately it is often the most difficult to detect. Abuse of the elderly is far too common. Nursing homes are intended to be a place of rest and care for the elderly, and while the majority of seniors receive nothing but the best care, instances of abuse in these homes are rapidly on the rise. The 2010 US Census recorded the highest proportion of people age 65 and older in history, a full 13% of the US population. This number is expected to rise to 20% by the year 2050. Seniors are the fastest growing segment of the US population, and this will only add to the number of residents in nursing homes in the coming years.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, “Elder mistreatment (i.e. abuse and neglect) is defined as intentional actions that cause harm or create a serious risk of harm (whether or not harm is intended) to a vulnerable elder by a caregiver or other person who stands in a trust relationship to the elder. This includes failure by a caregiver to satisfy the elder’s basic needs or to protect the elder from harm.” All types of nursing home abuse are damaging, whether emotional, physical, or financial damage. As our society turns more toward nursing homes over caring for their aging loved ones at home, it becomes even more important to protect our seniors from any type of abuse. One of the most critical ways to fight elder abuse is to learn the signs and know what to do when you suspect abuse.

One of the most common forms of abuse in nursing homes is physical abuse, which is defined as any type of physical force used against a senior citizen. This physical abuse results in pain or impairment; in severe instances it can result in the death of the patient. Physical abuse also includes the improper use of medications to render the patient incapacitated, as well as the use of physical restraints when they are not required.

Physical abuse is often the most reported type of abuse of the elderly, because its impacts are usually apparent by others in the form of bruises or other visible injuries. Many of the other forms of elder abuse in nursing homes are more difficult to diagnose and to prevent, as their effects are much more subtle.

Another type of nursing home abuse is emotional. When an elderly person is left in distress, emotional pain, or a state of fear or anxiety without being comforted, this is a type of abuse. Often an abuser will speak to the senior citizen in a tone or using words that cause them emotional pain, which can lead to physical symptoms as well. Verbal abuses which cause emotional trauma include shouting, threatening language, verbal humiliation and placing blame on the elderly patient for actions that they either cannot control or aren’t their fault.

There is also a type of emotional abuse that is more passive, although no less damaging to the nursing home patient. This passive abuse can take the form of negligence or long periods of isolation. Caregivers who ignore their patients to the point of abuse often believe that they are not causing them harm, but the emotional well-being of a nursing home patient cannot be maintained if it is being ignored.

Residents of nursing homes also often suffer from financial abuse. This type of abuse may be as simple as stolen money or as complex as healthcare fraud. Caregivers often have access to an elderly patient’s credit cards or bank accounts, making outright theft a simple act. Identity theft is also a concern for the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, as they don’t have access to the resources to keep an eye on their own accounts and credit histories.

Healthcare fraud may not directly injure the nursing home patient, but the effects of this type of abuse are nonetheless just as harmful. Abusers can charge insurance companies for services or medicines that the patient never received, whether they need them or not. Healthcare abuse can lead to illness caused by lack of required medications or needed services, as well as an increase in healthcare costs.

As distasteful and terrifying as it may seem sexual abuse in nursing homes is more frequent than we would like to believe. The elderly are often targeted in this way because they frequently have medical conditions which make it difficult or impossible for them to report their abusers or describe what’s happening to them.  Additionally, if the nursing home doesn’t properly monitor its residents, a victim can be sexually abused by a fellow resident. It is the responsibility of the facility to ensure that its residents are protected and that both staff and visitors are monitored and held accountable for their actions.

What are the signs to watch for if you suspect that there may be abuse of your elderly family member in an institution? If you see signs of nursing home abuse such as unreported injuries, lethargy, sudden changes in mood, weight or overall health, poor hygiene or other signs of neglect, you should start by speaking with the management of the facility. Nursing home administrations are required by law to address your concerns. Speak with the manager calmly, and allow time for a proper investigation into your issues.

If the explanation or resolution of the management doesn’t improve your loved ones care and condition, you should next file a complaint with the appropriate state agency in charge of nursing homes, as well as contacting an attorney to discuss the possibility of further action to protect your loved one’s health and well-being. State and federal laws ensure that nursing home patients and their loved ones have the right to file civil charges for pain and suffering, negligence, financial fraud or even wrongful death caused by abuse within the nursing home. Protecting our aging loved ones is one of the most difficult but important things we can do for them.