Yes, it’s disturbing. Abuse of the elderly happens all too frequently in Florida. It needs to stop. Many of our society’s most valuable people – and most vulnerable people – are victims right where they live. Elder abuse includes physical and emotional abuse and theft or financial exploitation, and it doesn’t always happen in nursing homes. As the population of senior citizens rises in the United States, there will likely be more elder abuse and a heightened need for awareness and vigilance.
Roughly 10,000 of us in the United States turn 65 every day. In another ten years, nearly 20 percent of us will be age 65 or over. Already here in Florida, 23 percent of the population is age 60 or older. According to the Florida Health Care Association, approximately 72,000 Florida families depend on nursing home facilities for the long-term care of a loved one. If your family is one of those 72,000, you need to be aware of elder abuse and recognize its signs.
Cases of elder abuse and neglect in our state have increased by 74 percent since 2011, according to figures from the Florida Department of Children and Families published earlier this year by the Orlando Sentinel. Since 2011, more than 800 people have been charged in Florida with elder abuse or neglect, and more than 370 have been convicted. It’s even worse in some states; elder abuse incidents in Hawaii increased by almost 300 percent from 2008 through 2013. Elder abuse in nursing homes is always a concern in Florida, but the sad fact is that many of the targets of elder abuse are victimized at home – and by their own family members.
WHY IS ELDER ABUSE DIFFICULT TO PROSECUTE?
Laura Moody, with the State Attorney’s Office in Brevard County, told the Sentinel that criminal charges for elder abuse and neglect are tough to prosecute and prove. Some elderly victims will put up with abuse to avoid being institutionalized or getting a younger family member in legal trouble. “They’d rather be subjected to abuse at home,” Ms. Moody said, than sent to a residential nursing facility.
In New York, when the Brooklyn district attorney’s office reviewed it its elder abuse prosecutions in 2014, they consistently found that abusers who are related to their victims were suffering from drug or alcohol addiction or from a mental illness. Arlene Markarian, bureau chief of the Brooklyn D.A.’s domestic violence and elder abuse unit, described for the Sentinel another reason elder abuse cases can be difficult to prove. Some older victims have cognition problems, including dementia, or have simply lost the physical ability to talk. “Many times,” said Ms. Markarian, “we are their voice.”
In particular, financial exploitation of the elderly is a crime that’s on the rise. Older individuals, especially if they are institutionalized or homebound, are targeted by caregivers, family members, financial advisers, and even long-time friends. The guilty steal jewelry and checks checks, use the victim’s credit and debit cards, and write checks without authorization. Usually, no money is recovered.
IS HOME HEALTHCARE A GOOD ALTERNATIVE TO NURSING HOMES?
Most residential nursing facilities adhere to high standards; they’re superbly operated and professionally managed. Sadly, however, others are not. The news stories and concerns about nursing home abuse are one reason that home healthcare has become popular. Home healthcare, however, is no guarantee of abuse-free care either. Older persons are at risk when either a nursing home or a home healthcare agency fails to give adequate care. Negligence by a nursing home staff or a home healthcare provider may include but isn’t limited to:
- failing to prevent or respond to falls, injuries, or emergency medical situations
- malnutrition or dehydration
- medication errors
- failing to prevent pressure ulcers (bedsores)
- physical or sexual abuse
- failing to keep a confused patient from wandering off
While the Brooklyn D.A. found that abusers related to victims are usually addicts or mentally ill, at least one factor makes nursing home abuse different. At least in part, nursing home abuse is – typically a consequence of inadequate staffing and training – or in other words, inadequate spending for staff and staff training. It’s not rare for fatigued and underpaid personnel at nursing homes to vent their frustrations on residents. Placing profits above the health and well-being of nursing home residents can’t be allowed.
How can families be sure their loved ones in nursing homes are treated and cared for properly? First, do your research. Ensure that the nursing facility is properly licensed. Families must be pro-active when a loved one is in a nursing home. Communicate routinely with the staff, show up unexpectedly, network with the families of other residents at the facility, and stay keenly alert for indications of abuse or neglect.
If you discover signs of physical or psychological abuse or financial exploitation, speak as quickly as you can with an experienced Orlando elder abuse attorney. Depending on the precise circumstances and the nature of the abuse, an attorney may recommend filing a personal injury claim against the nursing facility or involving law enforcement and pursuing criminal charges – or both.
WHAT ARE THE OBVIOUS SIGNS OF ELDER ABUSE?
If you have a loved one living in a Florida nursing home, stay alert for these signs: bedsores, bruises, ulcers, cuts, sudden emotional changes (like depression or withdrawal), an unexpected coma, or a medical emergency. Abuse includes any assault, verbal humiliation, unwarranted restraint, or sexual abuse. Bedsores, for example, are a common and clear indicator that a resident’s care is unacceptable. Bedsores arise because of unrelieved pressure, usually in or on the sacrum, coccyx (tailbone), ankles, elbows, and heels. Bedsores mean no one even bothers to turn the patient several times a day – an obvious sign of neglect.
Recently, families with loved ones in nursing homes received some good news from the federal government. The right of patients and families to sue long-term residential care facilities is now guaranteed. In September, a new federal rule announced by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services prohibits so-called “pre-dispute” binding arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts. Those clauses had previously required patients and families to settle any dispute over care in arbitration rather than through the courts.
The new regulation takes effect in November, so if you consult an Orlando elder abuse attorney and decide to sue a nursing home over abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a loved one, your family’s contract with the facility will not be an obstacle. Elder abuse won’t simply go away. It must be stopped, and that’s everyone’s job – lawmakers, judges, attorneys, nursing home owners, and the families of residents all have a role to play in ending the abuse of our society’s most valuable and most vulnerable people.