Confronting the Tragedy of Nursing Home Neglect and Abuse

"We begin to live," wrote the poet William Butler Yeats, "when we have conceived of life as a tragedy." That may be so as a psychological insight. In nursing homes, however, the tragedies of aging are often gallingly compounded by the tragedies of abuse and neglect.

One of the most difficult decisions an aging person and his or her family can make is the decision to enter a nursing home. It is often difficult for people to deal with the loss of independence that comes with acknowledging that they no longer have the ability to care for themselves. What starts off as a difficult situation can turn into a nightmare if the person suffers abuse or neglect while in the nursing home's care.

The extent of the problem of nursing home neglect and abuse is hard to clearly articulate, because it is so underreported. According to the National Elder Abuse Incident Study, people report only 16 percent of nursing home neglect and abuse cases to the proper government agency.

The statistics that are available point to a problem that is shocking in its scope. In 1999 there were 5,000 nursing home patient deaths from bed sores, dehydration, malnutrition or starvation. Reports from the National Center on Elder Abuse reveal that 30 percent of the nation's nursing homes have been cited for abuse and over 50 percent of nursing homes are understaffed - a situation that leads to resident neglect. In order for people to protect loved ones living in nursing homes it is important to know the different types of nursing home neglect and abuse, the warning signs for it, and what steps can be taken when problems are suspected.

Types of Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect

Nursing home abuse or neglect comes in many forms. It entails not only physical harm to a resident but also mental or psychological trauma. Some common types include:

•· Not giving residents adequate food or liquids

•· Failure to properly dispense medication - either over-medicating or under-medicating patients

•· Failure to take reasonable steps to prevent nursing home falls

•· Failure to attend to residents' toileting needs

•· Failure to turn bed-ridden residents

•· Failure to provide appropriate medical care

•· Failure to take reasonable steps to prevent residents' injuries

•· Physical abuse such as slapping or shoving

•· Shouting or screaming at residents

•· Unwarranted use of restraints

•· Sexual abuse or rape

•· Theft of a resident's money or personal property

•· Retaliation for reporting instances of abuse or neglect

Warning Signs of Nursing Home Abuse or Neglect

There are several warning signs for which nursing home residents' families should watch in order to alert them to the possibility that their loved one is suffering abuse or neglect in the facility. Some common warning signs are:

•· Falls: If a resident falls frequently or has an exceptionally severe injury as a result of a fall, it could be a sign that the nursing home staff does not monitor the patients as closely as they should to prevent falls or address injuries resulting from falls quickly after the incident.

•· Bedsores: Bedsores are a result of constant unrelieved pressure over a period of hours or days and can signal that patients are not getting the attention they need. If left untreated, bedsores can turn into serious infections that penetrate the bone and cause death.

•· Bruises, fractures or skin lesions: Each one of these is a sign of potential physical abuse.

•· Sudden change in the resident's mood, unwillingness to communicate, fear or anxiety: Such changes in behavior can indicate that the resident is experiencing some kind of trauma.

•· Significant weight loss: Changes in weight point to a resident not getting the food and water that he or she needs to be healthy.

•· Foul odors: Unpleasant smells suggest that the nursing home staff is not attending to the resident's hygiene or toileting needs.

Steps for Those Who Suspect Nursing Home Abuse or Neglect

The first step for family members who believe their loved one is suffering nursing home abuse or neglect is to discuss the situation with the resident. However, this may not always yield information, as the resident may be too scared or ashamed to discuss what is going on. The next step would be to discuss fears with the nursing home administration. If the conversation with the administration does not allay suspicions, the next step would be to file a complaint about the situation with the state health department or human services department.

Additionally, family members would benefit from consulting with an attorney who practices in the area of nursing home abuse and neglect to discuss what their options. The safety of their loved one is paramount. It may also be possible to recover damages for any harm that the nursing home resident has already suffered. If you suspect a loved one is suffering abuse or neglect in a nursing home, do not hesitate to contact an experienced attorney who can help you confront the tragedy.