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Nursing Home Injuries and Abuse

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The decision to place a loved one in a nursing home can be agonizing. Fears that your loved one will experience abuse or neglect make it even more difficult. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, we have good reason to be concerned. Elder abuse is a pervasive problem, and most instances of abuse are never reported.

Nursing Home Problems

The average nursing home in America faces many challenges, including inadequate staffing and insufficient funds. Low wages make it hard to attract and retain the best people for the job. Poor training of caregivers and overworking of nurses can lead to abuse and neglect of residents.

While nursing homes must perform background checks on prospective employees, staffing shortages can hasten these checks and potentially allow for dangerous and dishonest people to become caregivers. This increases the risk of assault, theft and sexual abuse.

Types of Nursing Home Abuse

Because of their dependence, the elderly are easier targets for mental, physical, medical and even financial abuse. Medical abuse is the most common type of elder abuse in nursing homes. It includes the unjustified use of restraints, neglect leading to bedsores, unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, insufficient pain management, untreated medical conditions and poor personal hygiene. Elderly residents are often confined to beds for extended periods of time due to understaffed units. As residents lie there, sometimes in their own urine and feces, ulcers begin to form on their skin. While bedsores may be present in the absence of abuse, any suspicious sores should be investigated thoroughly.

Financial abuse is a fast-growing form of elder abuse. Dishonest institutions may fail to invest savings for residents, bill inappropriate charges or change financial policies without proper disclosure, while dishonest employees steal money and property from the elderly.

Even though the Protection of the Abused, Neglected or Exploited Disabled Adult Act (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 108A-99 to -111) requires anyone who suspects abuse to report it, countless cases of abuse are never reported. If elderly residents do not receive visitors on a regular basis, signs of abuse can go unnoticed for years. To complicate matters, residents in nursing homes are often silent for fear of retaliation. When they do finally speak, family members may not take them seriously.

How to Prevent Abuse and Neglect

The best way to prevent elder abuse is to be directly involved with your loved one's care on a regular basis. Visit often and call frequently to establish relationships with nurses, physicians and caretakers. Listen to the resident and take all of his or her concerns seriously, even if there is a history of dementia. Pay surprise visits to the nursing home at all hours of the day and night to get a better feel for the overall care your loved one is receiving.

When choosing a nursing home, visit several nursing homes in the area and speak with residents and their families. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has a rating system designed to help families determine which nursing homes are best for them. In North Carolina, for example, over 25% of nursing home facilities in the state received an overall rating of 1 out of 5 stars for quality. USA Today reported that, based on the overall rankings on the CMS website, nonprofit nursing homes delivered better care than their for-profit counterparts ("Feds rate U.S. nursing homes," Dec. 18, 2008).

What to Do if You Suspect Abuse

If you suspect that your loved one has been abused, you should take several steps immediately. Contact the local Department of Social Services to file a report. Then contact an attorney. You only have a limited time in which to file a lawsuit. Victims of abuse have several options, including civil actions and breach of contract lawsuits. Criminal charges may also be filed.

In cases of elder abuse, victims may be compensated for past, present and future medical expenses caused by the abuse, plus damages for pain and suffering. Neglectful or abusive caregivers should be held responsible and removed from the facility. Negligent nursing homes should be stripped of their licenses to operate as well as any federal or state funding.

In 1987, the Nursing Home Reform Act was passed to protect the rights of nursing home residents. Most states, including North Carolina, recognize a Residents' Bill of Rights as a way of ensuring that the elderly are treated with respect and dignity. If your loved one is a victim of abuse and neglect, you can help your loved one regain the life he or she deserves.

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