Disability and Abuse Part 5: Nursing Homes and Abuse

Growing older is an experience that most aspire to enjoy. There are many wonderful things associated with growing older, such as having more time to spend with family after retirement, and the wisdom that comes with decades of life experience. But as people age, many encounter new challenges, both physically and mentally. Although becoming older does not necessarily mean becoming disabled, many people require more assistance in their day to day activities as they age. This opens the door to a variety of potential abuses, specifically experienced by people in their later years.

            Individuals make the decision to move into a retirement community or a nursing home for many reasons. Both provide access to assistive services, although nursing homes generally offer more immersive care, and retirement communities are generally geared toward independent-living with care staff available if needed. Both retirement communities and nursing homes bring people together, often within the same age range, and sometimes with common hobbies or activities organized by the institutions. Living in a retirement community or a nursing home can provide a social life, as well as medical assistance and help with daily tasks.

            However, as with any sort of institutional living arrangement, there can be problems that arise, whether through individual wrongdoing or through institutional mismanagement. Because of the amount of care that nursing homes provide, even seemingly simple mistakes by the management can cause hardship for residents. A PhD student who researches geriatric policy described several ways in which nursing home mismanagement can lead to abusive situations for residents. After visiting dozens of nursing homes in the US (all outside of Michigan), this student observed a range of issues that potentially cause risks to residents’ health and safety.

Most of the nursing homes in this country are run by for-profit companies, and so there have been instances in which those in charge of a nursing home have cut costs in ways that harm the people they are meant to serve. For instance, nursing homes often keep cards with instructions pertaining to each resident’s dietary needs. If an institution does not have a well-organized system for keeping track of this data, with information such as who is diabetic, or lactose intolerant, or needs to avoid certain foods, then residents might not receive meals that they can safely eat.

Besides negligence toward dietary restrictions, another form of abuse she described in nursing homes is abuse through chemical restraint. Many institutions provide medications for the well-being of their residents. However, in some institutions, residents are given psychotropic drugs in order to sedate them, so that they require less assistance with daily living—the logic being that it takes fewer staff to provide each resident with a pill to make them sleep than it does to care for them while they are awake.

A third form of abuse that this researcher observed happened in under-staffed nursing homes, where there were not enough nurses available to administer medications at times convenient to the residents. Therefore, these nursing homes often woke some residents up a 5 AM against their will to give them their medications, because with only a few nurses to care for many residents, there was not enough time in a day to administer pills to everyone during normal waking hours.

            Most nursing homes are not like the ones in the examples provided. Most are staffed by people who genuinely care about the people they serve. But for people who are mistreated or abused in nursing homes, there are ways to reach out and get help:

  • The Long-Term Care Ombudsman program is specifically set up to uphold and improve the quality of care in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman advocates for residents to try to ensure their rights are being upheld within long-term care facilities, and to make sure that their preferences and wishes are being honored. To reach a local ombudsman, people can call the State number at 1-866-485-9393, or visit https://mltcop.org/
  • If someone wishes to submit a formal complaint pertaining to a person’s care in a nursing home, including concerns of abuse and neglect,  Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) with The Bureau of Community and Health Systems (BCHS) accepts and processes complaints against various state licensed and federally certified health facilities, agencies, and programs, including nursing homes.  These complaints can be submitted via toll-free Complaint Hotline at 800-882-6006 or online at michigan.gov/lara 
  • People who suspect abuse, neglect or exploitation should also call Adult Protective Services at 855-444-3911 any time day or night to make a report.  Staff will investigate allegations within 24 hours after the report is received.

Written by Anna Clements

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