How to recognize nursing home abuse and what to do if you suspect it’s happened to your loved one
Elder abuse is common among seniors in residential facilities and in their own homes. Here’s what to look for and what you can do if you think it’s happening to your loved one.
Elder abuse is very real, and it might be happening to someone you love. It may have been a hard decision to place your loved one in a nursing home or elder care facility. Sometimes, your loved one resists losing their independence, or you might be wondering if they’d be better cared for by family. But needing elder care is inevitable for some people. The best thing you can do for a loved one in elder care is to visit as often as you can, call if it’s feasible, and do your research about the facility and its reputation to make sure it hasn’t committed elder abuse.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) defines elder abuse as “an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult (...someone age 60 or older).”
While elder abuse can happen when an older adult is in the care of a family member, it’s more prevalent when they’re in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, or cared for by in-home assistance services.
Elder abuse statistics
The CDC reports that there were 15,600 nursing homes in the US in 2014. These facilities housed an estimated 1.4 million residents. There are 12,400 home health agencies and about 4.9 million patients who receive care annually.
There are several types of living arrangements for older adults who need accommodations inside or outside their homes:
Aging in place: This refers to older adults who remain in their homes but have services that come to them to assist in their daily lives.
Independent living within a senior facility: An active senior might prefer to give up the labor and responsibility of private home maintenance, but is still able to live independently, make meals, and care for themselves. An independent living arrangement could be either apartment-style or single-family home living for senior individuals or couples.
Adult homes: These licensed and regulated homes are for either temporary or long-term residence for adults who aren’t able to live independently. Adult homes are often for adults with disabilities, but who might not be over 60. Staff will assist in the activities of daily life like meals, housekeeping, bathing, and general supervision.
Enriched housing: This arrangement is similar to an adult home, except that rather than people living under one roof, they receive services while still in separate houses.
Assisted living: Adults in assisted living receive room, board, meals, and other services, but not 24-hour nursing care.
Skilled nursing facility: A skilled nursing facility is a traditional nursing home, where older adults live who aren’t able to be independent. These homes are staffed by medical professionals who provide specialized care, in addition to assistance with daily activities.
If you’re a family member of an older adult who receives home care services or who lives in a senior housing situation, then you should know that about one in ten Americans over the age of 60 have experienced elder abuse.
Types of elder abuse
Elder abuse can manifest in several ways. Sometimes it’s physical violence or emotional harm, but it could also be a form of exploitation. The CDC gives these definitions of elder abuse:
Intentional use of physical force that results in illness, bodily injury, pain, impairment, distress, or death
Violence that includes hitting, beating, scratching, biting, choking, suffocating, shoving, shaking, kicking, pinching, burning
Forced or unwanted sexual contact, or any sexual acts with a person who is not competent to give consent
Penetration of the anal or genital opening with a body part or other object; contact between the mouth and the vulva, penis, or anus; intentional touching of the genitalia, anus, groin, breasts, inner thigh, or buttocks
Emotional or psychological abuse
Verbal or nonverbal behavior that inflicts anguish, mental pain, fear, or distress
Intentional humiliation, threatening, isolation, control
Caregiver or other responsible person fails to protect the older adult from harm, or does not meet the needs for medical care, nutrition, hydration, hygiene, clothing, or basic activities of daily living which results in compromised health or safety
Failure to provide nutrition, hygiene, clothing, shelter, or access to health care; failure to keep activities and environments safe
Financial abuse or exploitation
Illegal, unauthorized, or improper use of an elder’s resources by a caregiver
Depriving of access to information about or use of personal benefits, resources, belongings or assets; forgery, misuse or theft of money or possessions; coercion or deception to obtain finances or property, or improper use of guardianship or power of attorney
Signs of elder abuse
It can be hard to recognize elder abuse, especially if your loved one is far away, if you don’t have daily contact, or if they have a hard time communicating. But there are signs to look for that might give you the heads-up that there’s a problem.
Signs of abuse include (but aren’t limited to):
Physical abuse: Bruises, marks, abrasions, broken bones or burns
Emotional abuse: Withdrawal from activities, change in alertness, depression, difficulty with relationships, argumentativeness
Financial abuse: Sudden change in financial situation
Neglect: Bedsores, poor hygiene, weight loss
Penalties for elder abuse
There are criminal penalties for elder abuse that would be handled by local law enforcement. There are civil remedies, too. If you believe your loved one is in immediate or life-threatening danger, call 911 or a law enforcement bureau to remove the senior from the situation.
Once your loved one is safe, you can explore civil legal options. This could include a restraining order to prevent the abuser from having repeated access, or it could be in the form of a civil lawsuit to recover financial assets that have been lost.