With more than 10,000 boomers retiring each day and more seniors ending up at some point in their lives in nursing homes, regulators need to step up their oversight of elder care facilities. But there’s disturbing information they’re failing at this crucial task, allowing terrible abuses of older Americans who also may be evicted unfairly from facilities and who may be insufficiently protected when natural calamities occur.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune deserves credit for its multipart investigation of abuses in nursing homes. As the news organization has reported of its findings:
Every year, hundreds of residents at senior care centers around the state are assaulted, raped or robbed in crimes that leave lasting trauma and pain for the victims and their families. Yet the vast majority of these crimes are never resolved, and the perpetrators never punished, because state regulators lack the staff and expertise to investigate them. And thousands of complaints are simply ignored. … Last year alone, the Minnesota Department of Health received 25,226 allegations of neglect, physical abuse, unexplained serious injuries, and thefts in state-licensed homes for the elderly. Ninety-seven percent were never investigated. That includes 2,025 allegations of physical or emotional abuse by staff, 4,100 reports of altercations between residents and 300 reported drug thefts. When the Health Department did investigate, records show that it often neglected key steps in a criminal probe. In dozens of those cases, for instance, no one interviewed the victims, and no one called the police. Health Department documents contain dire tales of residents being choked, punched, smothered with pillows, fondled and forcibly restrained.
The Star-Tribune details in its five-part series how families are forced to wait too long for authorities to act, and how they too often learn to their horror that patients’ roommates or facilities’ staff were abusers. The news organization also points out the unexpected and unhappy consequences for some residents in complaining about conditions at a nursing home—more about that in just a second.
This excellent work, sadly, confirms a recent nationwide investigation by CNN of nursing homes, which found that abuses may be more common and without repercussions for offenders, including staffers who may have committed crimes against residents in their care.
In case there’s any question why more incidents don’t get reported and investigated, the AARP Foundation may have a key reason why: the big number of nursing home residents who, summarily, get evicted from facilities. National Public Radio reports that, based on the foundation’s work, eviction is the leading and growing complaint nationwide about nursing homes by residents and families.
The AARP Foundation has asked federal authorities to investigate this issue better and to enforce legal protections so nursing homes, which are declining in number, don’t toss residents almost reflexively if they aren’t docile and compliant. They aren’t supposed to, and the law outlines steps to protect both residents and facilities, while also ensuring that a fair, reasonable process was followed first.
In my practice, I see not only the huge harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the horrors of the abuse and neglect inflicted on nursing home residents. It is shameful that lawmakers, policy experts, and regulators have failed to reckon with the nation’s graying demographics and the proliferation of abuses in elder care giving settings.
The spate of summer hurricanes and floods put a spotlight on not only the vulnerability of seniors needing care but also the dubious facilities that offer it, most notably the South Florida facility where 14 elderly residents died after Hurricane Irma knocked out its power and cooling systems.
It’s unacceptable that, in the epidemic of finger-pointing that has followed those tragic deaths, governments in two big counties in South Florida have tried to keep from the public the emergency plans that nursing homes are supposed to file with them. Though families may want to see such documents to ensure their loved ones will be safe in a natural calamity, officials say terrorists may access potentially harmful information in them, so the governments are releasing only heavily redacted versions of the plans. Further, the state suddenly has eliminated online postings, previously available, of its reports on inspections of troubled nursing homes.
Lest anyone think that these are the only folks who need to get a clue, it’s also worth mentioning some new research out of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, which has done some excellent studies on public policies that will be needed to deal not only with the nation’s aging but also dementia-ravaged population. Medical science hasn’t yet developed effective therapies for Alzheimer’s, a key condition associated with dementia. But if and when that occurs, the existing health care system may not be able to put such treatments into use as quickly or smartly as demanded, researchers have found. That’s partly due to the dearth of specialists caring for the elderly, as well as the sizable number of potential patients who would need to be screened and then cared for.
We clearly have lots of work to do on issues affecting the elderly, and it doesn’t seem as if, on so many fronts, our leaders are pointing us in the progressive directions.