What You Need to Know About Nursing Homes: The Sad Truth of Abuse

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Nothing halts the march of time. Steadily, we grow older. This can look different for many people. Some will live with their families, helped by their kids and grandkids. Others will live nearby but choose a more independent life. Others may move to their dream home. But not everyone has so much freedom in their choice. There are those of us who, as we age, will find ourselves with less independence. We may develop medical issues that our families are not equipped to help us with. 

When our loved ones begin to lose independence and struggle with their health, it often comes down to their family to choose a nursing home. Of course, you want to find somewhere that will take good care of them, with great amenities and knowledgeable healthcare staff. And for most families, that’s what happens — their loved one is moved in and well cared for through the end of their days. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone. We need to talk about the shadowy secret happening across the US: nursing home abuse.

Defining Nursing Home Abuse

Nursing home abuse can be malicious and accidental. It is what happens when the staff tasked with caring for your loved one don’t do their job properly. Like domestic abuse, relational abuse, and more, nursing home abuse can come in many forms:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Financial Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Medical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect

Forms of abuse often overlap, and they have significant, lasting effects on our loved ones. Abuse can look like punching or kicking a resident, or it can be more subtle like withholding medication. Unwanted touches to harsh words and yelling. It could be a forged signature or a lack of positional change for bed-bound patients. Unchecked infections, lack of hygiene care— the list goes on.

Patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia are more likely to be abused, but patients with full cognitive function are not immune to becoming victims. Often feelings such as shame or embarrassment may hold your loved one back from confiding in you.

How to Spot Signs of Nursing Home Abuse

In a best-case scenario, you would either catch the staff member in the act or your loved one will tell you they are being mistreated. Unfortunately, they may be unwilling or unable to let you know what’s going on. So here are some things to look out for:

  • Unsafe living conditions, like tripping hazards
  • The resident is left to sit in their soil
  • Unexplained bruises, breaks, or other injuries
  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Dehydration
  • Untreated sores
  • Sepsis
  • Changes in spending

If you notice any of these, try and get your loved one to talk to you. You can also raise concerns with the staff. In some cases of abuse, there is an issue with a specific employee; other cases involve systemic issues that lead to problems. Let’s take a closer look.

What Leads to Nursing Home Abuse?

As mentioned previously, sometimes it’s a single employee. Someone who found a job where they have power over vulnerable people and take every advantage they can. They may intimidate other staff into covering for them, or they may be very good at hiding their tracks.

But the other lead-up to abuse is systemic. Something is going wrong in the nursing home that leads to staff issues. While there is no excuse for abuse, knowing what can cause normally caring humans to snap can help us prevent, recognize, and stop the abuse. Here are some things that can extend staff too far:

  • Poorly trained staff
  • Insufficient education requirements
  • Understaffed
  • Overworked
  • Insufficient accountability
  • Poor communication

When you’re stressed, poorly trained, or overworked, it’s too easy to make mistakes. If people aren’t held accountable in their shifts or don’t properly communicate with other staff, residents can fall between the cracks. Perhaps a nurse didn’t realize it was their turn to rotate patients to avoid bed-sores; no accountability means no one is checking in, and no communication means nurses missing who is meant to do what.

A poorly trained staff member may have difficulty helping move patients with mobility issues safely, leading to falls and injuries, or being unable to help clean and change someone who has soiled themselves.

Fighting Nursing Home Abuse

There are two key ways to fight nursing home abuse: working to prevent it in the first place and reporting it and putting a stop to it. If you suspect your loved one may be a victim of abuse, it’s important to contact someone who can help. Organizations across the US, like the Nursing Home Law Center, offer free resources and guidance for concerned families. They are dedicated to putting an end to nursing home abuse and holding abusers accountable through the legal system.

Preventing nursing home abuse is just as large a battle. You can join larger movements seeking to change the regulations around nursing homes, or you can start smaller with your own loved one’s care. Research any nursing homes they are considering, go on tours with them, and stay active in their care and daily lives.

You can also sit down with your family before they move and work out power of attorney, who will be in charge of their finances, and what to do if abuse is suspected. If you have a plan in place, it’s easier to act when something happens.

You can also get to know the staff of the nursing home. Be friendly; check in on them. Not only might you find some new friends, but they may also be willing to come to you if something is wrong. As a patron or the relative of a paying resident, you have more power to talk to a manager while letting them remain anonymous.

It’s going to take all of us to protect our vulnerable loved ones. Together, we can build a healthier, safer end-of-life experience.