Elder abuse is a cruelty so abhorrent that it is almost unfathomable. It’s difficult to imagine someone cruel enough to physically assault a senior citizen, especially when the assaulter is a healthcare provider and the victim is a nursing home resident. In theory, nursing homes exist to provide for the wellbeing of those who most need it. Unfortunately, in practice, these facilities don’t just fall short of that objective, they often do the exact opposite and cause significant physical or emotional harm to those they’re supposed to be caring for.

The abuse and neglect of nursing home residents is far more common that most people would like to believe. Before we look at what we know and what we don’t know about nursing home abuse, let’s look at some facts about nursing home care in the United States.

The State of Nursing Homes in the U.S.

There are approximately 1.4 million nursing home residents in approximately 15,600 nursing homes in the United States. About 60 percent of those facilities are for-profit, though Medicaid pays for most of the nursing home residents’ care.

The percentage of older Americans who occupy nursing homes has fallen dramatically over the past few decades. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1977 to 2014, the number of nursing home residents aged 65 and over per 1,000 population fell by about one-half. Over that same period, the number of nursing homes have declined by 15 percent.

What these numbers tell us is that the nursing home industry in the United States is largely made up of private enterprises using government funds and that the industry, though still heavily relied upon by older Americans, has been in decline over recent years. This helps set the stage for what many safety advocates believe is a system plagued by nursing home resident abuse and neglect.

What is Known About the Prevalence of Abuse in Nursing Homes

It’s important to understand that existing research about nursing home abuse in the United States is often outdated, and it is conducted too infrequently. However, here are a few things that studies have shown, according to a research brief by the National Center on Elder Abuse…

  • A report from 2001 found that one-third of nursing homes were host to resident abuse.
  • A study of resident interviews in 2000 revealed that 44 percent of patients said they had been abused.
  • More recently, a 2010 study found that over half of nursing home staff admitted to mistreating older residents.
  • Around one-third of abuse complaints in our nursing homes concerned physical abuse.

An in-depth piece from CNN in 2017 also provided some startling revelations about sexual abuse in nursing homes. CNN found “that the federal government has cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for mishandling or failing to prevent alleged cases of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse at their facilities” from 2013 to 2016. As CNN points out, many rape victims don’t report sexual assault, so the numbers are likely significantly higher.

Unreported Abuse is A Major Problem in the U.S.

What we know about nursing home abuse is disturbing, but just as alarming is what we don’t know. For example, a recent alert given by the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services said that about 28 percent of serious cases of nursing home abuse are not reported to the police, which violates both federal and state law, as reported by NPR.

Not only do these matters not get reported to the police, they are sometimes handled in a way that essentially covers up the wrongdoing. For example, the assistant regional inspector general interviewed by NPR told a story about a female nursing home resident who was badly bruised after a sexual assault, something that should have been reported to the police within two hours. After the family of the victim reported the incident to the police, the facility reached out to the police to say that they didn’t need to come to the facility to investigate.

Why Elder Abuse is So Common

There are several reasons that abuse and neglect occur so frequently. First is the fact that many senior citizen nursing home residents are easy prey for predators. These residents often have dementia or other conditions that make it difficult for them to speak up about their abuse. Even if they do complain, it’s not a given that their complaints will be taken seriously.

Second, nursing homes are often understaffed. Pay also isn’t great for workers at nursing homes, which means that these facilities often rely on less-experienced or under-qualified workers. CNN also reported that these facilities fail to staff supervisors during second and third shifts, when abuse is more likely to occur.

Abuse Comes in Many Forms

Nursing home abuse includes more than physical and sexual assault. Neglect is also common in nursing homes. Failure to provide adequate food and water is also a form of abuse, as is the over-prescribing or administering of harmful medications. This has been a frequent problem in nursing homes, where staff often give residents antipsychotic drugs that increase the resident’s likelihood of suffering a serious injury.

Staff can also be abusive if they scream, insult, demean or otherwise inflict emotional or psychological harm to a resident. These types of abuse are even more difficult to detect because there will be no physical sign that abuse has occurred, though family members might notice that their loved one appears depressed, withdrawn or anxious.

Nursing home abuse is not committed only by staff. Resident-on-resident nursing home abuse is likely just as common as abuse at the hands of staff members. But just because another resident is perpetrating abuse, it doesn’t mean the facility carries no responsibility. In fact, it is a nursing home’s duty to provide for the safety and security of its residents, which includes protecting a resident from abuse at the hands of another resident.

It’s Vital to Act Quickly Once Abuse Has Occurred

Family members of an abused nursing home resident should notify the authorities and contact an attorney as soon they discover abuse has happened. A prompt report ensures that the authorities will have a record of the incident and potentially spare the resident from further abuses.

If you or your loved one has been abused in a nursing home in South Carolina, contact Bert Louthian to learn more about your legal options. Call us today at (803) 454-1200 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.